The Conception of the Most Holy Theotokos


From the OCA Website:

St Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary, was the youngest daughter of the priest Nathan from Bethlehem, descended from the tribe of Levi. She married St Joachim (September 9), who was a native of Galilee.For a long time St Anna was childless, but after twenty years, through the fervent prayer of both spouses, an angel of the Lord announced to them that they would be the parents of a daughter, Who would bring blessings to the whole human race.The Orthodox Church does not accept the teaching that the Mother of God was exempted from the consequences of ancestral sin (death, corruption, sin, etc.) at the moment of her conception by virtue of the future merits of Her Son. Only Christ was born perfectly holy and sinless, as St Ambrose of Milan teaches in Chapter Two of his Commentary on Luke.The Holy Virgin was like everyone else in Her mortality, and in being subject to temptation, although She committed no personal sins. She was not a deified creature removed from the rest of humanity. If this were the case, She would not have been truly human, and the nature that Christ took from Her would not have been truly human either. If Christ does not truly share our human nature, then the possibilty of our salvation is in doubt.

The Conception of the Virgin Mary by St Anna took place at Jerusalem. The many icons depicting the Conception by St Anna show the Most Holy Theotokos trampling the serpent underfoot.

“In the icon Sts Joachim and Anna are usually depicted with hands folded in prayer; their eyes are also directed upward and they contemplate the Mother of God, Who stands in the air with outstretched hands; under Her feet is an orb encircled by a serpent (symbolizing the devil), which strives to conquer all the universe by its power.”

There are also icons in which St Anna holds the Most Holy Virgin on her left arm as an infant. On St Anna’s face is a look of reverence. A large ancient icon, painted on canvas, is located in the village of Minkovetsa in the Dubensk district of Volhynia diocese. From ancient times this Feast was especially venerated by pregnant women in Russia.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.






38 responses to “The Conception of the Most Holy Theotokos”

  1. Canadian Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Why in the Vespers service do the Orthodox pray “Theotokos, save us”?
    I am aware of the verses that mention that we should “save” others with fear….or when Paul says “that I might save some”.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    At the very least it carries the meaning of referring to the entire incarnation event of Theotokos-Christ (typical of Orthodox to carry such an extended event into a service as though it were one single thing).

    In another sense it also simply means, Most Holy Theotokos pray for us.

    Though the former meaning is more likely the earlier and closer meaning.

    But as you noted, the NT will use save in a variety of contexts and not simply the narrow meaning of modern evangelical theology.

  3. The Conception of the Virgin Mary

    Today is the Feast of St. Anne’s Conception of the Virgin Mary. Fr. Stephen Freeman has presented the summary of the feast from the OCA’s website as well as answered the question what “Most Holy Theotokos, save us” means, and Mi…

  4. neil Avatar

    Hello Fr Stephen, et al,
    I’m glad Canadian asked the question above as I was just thinking I should pose this myself.

    As a former evangelical on the road to conversion to Orthodxy, I want to embrace the Theotokos as the Church does and I don’t have any objections as many Protestant converts may (prior to a proper understanding or not). But in reading a daily devotional for the Advent/Nativity season I come across prayers or pieces of services that use language that is difficult for me to reconcile completely. I want to reconcile it or understand it or whatever, though. I feel like phrases like “save me,” when addressing the Theotokos should include “through your prayers” or “through your intercessions,” but I want to understand properly and I don’t want to go my own modified way on this. In one service we call her “protectress of all who pray to you” and we say “in you we place all our hope.” As you can imagine, the Protestant caution-alarm goes off a little when I read this, but I really want to get past it.

    Any help to offer me? Is it just a language thing and if so, being an English speaker, what do I do with phrases like this?

    Thanks in advance, I love the church and feel like my faith has hope here finally.


  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    To some degree it’s a language thing. To a large extent it’s the language of devotion and love, and occasional hyperbole. Many saints in prayers written to them will be addressed with language similar to “our only hope, etc.”

    None of this has any intention of negating the fact that God is our hope. Any of these statements assumes the phrase “among men” or “among created beings” etc.

    The Theotokos is a bit more complex theologically, because it is indeed more than her prayers that share in our salvation. Her own flesh shares in our salvation. He is present at the incarnation, and present in a way that involves her voluntary cooperation with God. In Orthodox thought, the incarnation is the “Cause” of all things (since “all things were created for Him, by Him, etc.). St. Maximus the Confessor applied this to the incarnate Logos and not simply to the pre-existent Logos, thus blowing time out the window. But, of course, this puts the Theotokos present and participating in the “Cause” of all things. Thus language addressed to her can and does have an extremity that cannot be addressed to any other created being.

    Sometimes these hymns have a theological import beyond the mere pious sentiment, and are stated in such a way that if she is not the Mother of the incarnate 2nd person of the Holy Trinity, then they cannot be said. Thus they are hymns that defend the Christology and Theology of the Church.

    It’s just that Protestant language speaks of Christ as though he never had a mother and was incarnate somehow apart from her. They miss the gospel by a mile in so doing. Part of the conversion process is giving such hymns time to percolate down and for the theology to round out our understanding of Christ and His work of salvation.

    I reminded myself that saints such as Seraphim, et al, did not hesitate at such language and it helped me relax.

    In the opposite direction, the absence of such theological language in Protestantism has been part of a constantly shrinking theology in which the lowest common denominator seems to trump the category of fullness. I opt for fullness – as you seem to be doing as well. May God give you grace for these things.

  6. neil Avatar

    Thank you Father. The part about “among created beings” helps, as does knowing that the Theotokos is a vital part of a full theology of the incarnation. I like what you said about remembering that the Big Saints (if I may use such a crass term) did not hesitate to use this language; however, they said a lot of things that blow the doors off my understanding of an agreeably Protestant view of the world.

    Indeed, I too opt for fullness, but I’m on the slow track, perhaps (as I think I’ve hinted to you previously). Because God is outside time and because He cares for me, I do believe He will give me grace for such things. And I believe His Mother will point me always to Her Son, as well.

  7. Leonard Nugent Avatar
    Leonard Nugent

    Father Stephen,
    My understanding of Eve before the fall is that she had sanctifying grace in its fullness. The Catholic church does not regard Eve as a deified creature so there’s a distinction. I think it would be difficult to find anyone who speaks with authority in the Catholic church to refering to The Holy Virgin Mary as a deified creature at the time of the annunciation. All would agree whole heartedly with St Ambrose, a doctor of the church. I for one am in absolute agreement with his statement.

    The Holy Virgin was like everyone else in Her mortality, and in being subject to temptation, although She committed no personal sins. She was not a deified creature removed from the rest of humanity. If this were the case, She would not have been truly human, and the nature that Christ took from Her would not have been truly human either. If Christ does not truly share our human nature, then the possibilty of our salvation is in doubt.

  8. Max Avatar

    When it is said in a certain prayer,”rescue us from our calamities, You, the only Pure and Blessed one” how can this be reconciled with the fact that there are more beings in the universe, even mortals, who are blessed and pure.

    Mary is not the “only blessed and pure one” and such language, if the early Christians were forced to say such things, would die before saying it, would they not?

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    In the sense that the Church understands “only pure and only blessed one” the early church would not have had difficulty. Indeed, doesn’t Luke’s gospel say, “All generations will call me blessed?”

    But such phrases as the mature, “Only pure, only blessed,” are later than the New Testament and belong more to what the Church has understood was “known in silence,” which would apply to the Trinity for that matter – things that though true and “known in a mystery” were not said openly for some time for a variety of reasons.

    I believe that there is a direct, straight line, without deviation, between the writings and theology of the New Testament and that of the Fathers: Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, etc. (both of those have Apostolic connection), and the theology that is Orthodoxy today is completely in agreement with that theology taught by these same fathers. And I do not believe any other Church in Christendom can say the same, at least not in the same fullness.

    If a first century Christian would die before saying such a thing, it would be because he did not want to speak such a holy secret, not because he did not believe that Mary was pure and holy.

    If the word “only” bothers you then you need to read more Greek poetry. It’s an intensifier in this case, not an exclusionary adverb.

  10. Max Avatar

    It’s a very poor translation… or should I say, the only poor translation?

    Why go overboard and alienate English-speaking folks? Is the Church only for Greeks who can understand Greek poetry?

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary is the Theotokos. No one else is or will be at least not in the same manner. There are many lay people, many priests, many bishops, many saints, many angels, but only one Theotokos. Early Christians did die to protect that realization. She is unique, special, the ‘only’ one from whom God took humanity. The ‘only one’ whose womb became more spacious than the heavens and contained the uncontainable God, blessed and purified beyond anything anyone else has known. That does not deny in any way the fact that we are all equally loved by God in our own uniqueness, but egalitarianism doesn’t have much place in the Orthodox Church.

    Ideally, the Church is a hierarchy of service, not of power or authority (although our sinfulness often prevents the realization). Mary gives great service to us by her acceptance of the Word, allowing Him to be Incarnate in her by the Holy Spirit. By refusing to honor her, one runs the risk of refusing to honor her Son, our Lord, God and Savior.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Max, the best way to overcome your doubts and questions concerning the status of Mary is simply to go to her and ask her to show you truth. You don’t have to know Greek at all to do that.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think Michael put it well. What she did, she alone or “only” did. She is unique in her part of salvation history. The languge reflects that.

  14. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell

    Many of our prayers (hymns) to Christ call Him “the only Lover of Mankind,” whereas all Christians are called to love “thy neighbor.” “Only lover” is a similar use of the word “only,” as in totally unique and special (hierarchically and ontologically), not as in eliminating all others without remainder. I guess I am so use to the poetic majesty of this language expression that I don’t notice the possible confusing in “only.” But it also seems related to the way our prayers before communion are worded when we adopt St. Paul’s qualifier as our own when confessing that “Christ came into the world to save sinners of whom I am CHIEF.” I don’t think to myself when I confess myself as “chief” of sinners, “What about Stalin?”

    I know my remarks are a little off point here, regarding the Theotokos. But it does help, I think, to realize how powerfully language can be so completely accurate, even in translation, yet so fully packed with many levels of theology that we can write “no end of books,” as the author of the Gospel of John reflects, in articulation of the revelation of God become Man. This certainly makes the Thotokos that one and only, special, unique human person in all of history to be blessed to have this grace revealed to us in her very body.

    “Oh Full of Grace, Glory to Thee!”

  15. Max Avatar

    I’m not denying Mary’s special role. My only concern was the language barrier that exists.

    Yes, you can reply with all sorts of philosophical and poetic answers to how these prayers are valid, but you know that if something creates a barrier to someone coming to know Christ, a Muslim for example, then that language is a burden and stumbling block to them accepting the Incarnation, not a help.

    St. Paul did not pray these prayers to Mary. The absence of his magnifying Mary seems a huge contrast to the abundance in your tradition.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Max, I understand the point you make. However, Orthodoxy sings and teaches what has been received in the Church, and though some things are said more clearly than St. Paul (he doesn’t articulate a doctrine of the Trinity either, though it is there, we would say the same with regard to the Theotokos). It is not “my” Tradition, but The Tradition, what the Church has received as surely as she has received everything else. That someone might find something to be a stumbling block is always intellectually and theoretically possible. However, you’d be surprised to find out how much Mary is venerated by Muslims in the mideast. But for anyone to receive anything of the Church, even Christ, is a gift of grace. If the Church resorted to intellectualizing to analyze the Tradition, we would sink into a rationalizaton of the Truth, which is not the same thing as the Truth. I assure you, the Church says nothing concerning the Mother of God that is not fully and completely true. It is the fullness of the Christian faith.

    What you suggest is something that Orthodoxy change something it has done since nearly the beginning.

    The words you quote, by the way, are from the hymn, Beneath Thy Compassion, which is archeologically proven to have dated back to at least the 3rd century. There is a papyrus manuscript of the hymn from Egypt. I suspect that the 3rd century, and certainly the 1st were nothing like that imagined in Protestantism.

    I found that after I became Orthodox, the Scriptures revealed themselves to be “more Orthodox” than I had noticed (because I was reading through inherited Protestant filters). Somehow, 2nd century Christians, had no trouble with that hymn and found no conflict with Scripture.

    You can read in detail on the manuscript at this website.

  17. Max Avatar

    You may be using the term “Protestantism” quite broadly. You know it is a very category with a very broad range of traditions and mindsets.

    I imagine early Christianity would be more akin to a Jewish synagogue… chanting the prayers, psalms, and hymns to God only.

    If Jews cannot accept prayers to saints now, how much more would they have rejected such a practice at the beginning of the Church? The Jews in the Church would have rejected such a practice, wouldn’t they? Honestly?

    There’s a vast difference in mindset between offering praise to just one single heavenly being alone (strictly) and offering praise to numerous heavenly beings. Going from one mindset to another is no small step.

    Yes, I know Orthodox do not praise Mary to the degree that they praise God. It’s relative…the Top Being gets the highest degree of praise and the lower beings get relatively less… like a Greek Pantheon, right?

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Not just relatively less but of a different kind.

    Apparently Jews of the 1st centuries decorated their synagogues with images of OT saints, as seen in the excavations of Dura Europa which differs from many preconceived notions. The “Jews” in the early Church obviously accepted everything everyone else did. The Church is as it is.

    What is different, is that you seem to grant to the Church no authority no fulfillment of the Divine Promise to be led into all truth. This is the Church that ratified the canon of Scripture. The same church that sang hymns to Mary as Theotokos. This is the Church predicted and founded in Scripture. You can’t go back and make up one that never existed.

  19. Max Avatar

    Can you imagine George W. Bush ordering the replacement of the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in America? Yet, this sort of thing happened routinely under the Emperor of Rome – and it was acceptable.

    Somewhere there is a disconnect, but I admire your devotion.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodoxy makes no claims about the nature of Church history – no pretense of theoretical and automatic infallibility. But it rightly claims to be what it is – the Church Christ founded – and that Christ has been faithful to his promise. The Church has been preserved despite wicked Emperors, heretics, persecutions of Islam, Communists, etc.

    On the other hand, Orthodoxy has never taught that a group of people lacked souls because of the color of their skin – which was a common teaching among Protestants in the South. Nor has Orthodoxy ever embraced heresy in any form. I fail in my devotion and am not worthy of the Church in which I serve. But it is Orthodox because of Christ, not because its hierarchs were always saints (some were and some were most decidedly not). But Christ never promised such magical notions, only that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church.

    American culture has swung in such a direction that almost no Southern Protestant would embrace a false teaching as was once common here. But at the same time, they are unable to resist other cultural swings whether it is changing mores on sexuality, or any number of heretical notions concerning Christ. It is confusion and in constant flux. There are very few Protestant Churches that can claim to have maintained the same doctrine and sacramental practice for as many as a hundred years, much less 2000. What I have seen in my own short 54 years is staggering. Whatever the varied strengths of different Protestant groups, it is hard to see past the cultural captivity of either liberal or conservative group.

    There is a common heritage with Orthodox Christianity – but when you examine what is generally referred to as “orthodox” Christianity, it is clear that the Church that has consistently maintained that standard is the Orthodox Church. Others look to its faith as a touchstone no matter how they may deny it. This is the faith of the Fathers – not a denomination to which to be loyal – but the common inheritance preserved for all – as Christ promised.

  21. Max Avatar

    >Nor has Orthodoxy ever embraced heresy in any form. <

    According to Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy has never embraced heresy in any form.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    That’s why they call it Orthodoxy 🙂

    But it certainly does not embrace anything today that it did not embrace in its first 1000 years. If it was in error then, then Christ’s failed to keep His promise and the gates of hell prevailed against the Church. For 1000 years there is no other Church. Whatever Protestantism is, it is a modern invention, with a modernist approach to the Scriptures (whether fundamentalist, liberal, moderate, evangelical, etc., all are modernist positions that assume modernist presuppositions and philosophical underpinnings). None of them can make a credible claim to interpret Scripture in the manner of the Fathers or in any way historically consistent with the early Church. This is not being argumentative about things – these are simply straightforward historical facts about the history of interpretation and doctrine.

    It may be that someone prefers a modernized Christianity – but the same person cannot claim the authority of Christ for a new form of the faith. Well, I guess people can claim all kinds of things (i.e. Joseph Smith). Just don’t ask me to accept that kind of claim – it is not consistent with what is given us in Scripture.

  23. Max Avatar

    If there was any record of a disciple of the Apostles who prayed to saints, for example St. Ignatius, then there might be a good case to claim nothing has changed in 1000 years…

    And, of course, Chrismation with oil replacing laying on of hands… I think the Copts at least apply the chrysm with their hands for the Holy Spirit. But, to not even lay hands (applicator brush instead) for the reception of the Holy Spirit is a change from the Apostles’ practice.

    A small prayer to honor a saint over time evolved into hymns of praise using Greek poetry that sounds like blasphemy to a typical Jew.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Max, Fr. Stepehen may disagree with me, but part of the purpose of the Church is to offend. She is not a place to be comfortable. The logical extension of your thought process is poltically correct drivel. But even that is offensive to those who hunger for truth. The purpose of the Church is to speak the Truth, not to make converts. Only the grace of the Holy Spirit can convert. I certainly do not intend to offend people, but I will not shrink from it either. I seem to recall “giving offense” was what brought many saints to mayrtrdom. They witnessed to the truth.

    If you are offended by the Theotokos, you are offended. You are wrong, dangerously wrong as it happens, but you are offended. The Church will not change simply because of your offense or anyone else’s.


  25. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell

    The Archangel was sent from Heaven to cry: Rejoice! to the Theotokos. And beholding Thee, O Lord, taking bodily form, he stood in awe, and with his bodiless voice he cried aloud to her such things as:

    Rejoice, you through whom joy shall shine.
    Rejoice, you the redemption of the tears of Eve.
    Rejoice, Height hard to climb for human thought.
    Rejoice, Depth hard to explore even for the eyes of Angels.
    Rejoice, for you are the Throne of the King.
    Rejoice, for you sustained the Sustainer of all.
    Rejoice, Star through whom the Sun appears.
    Rejoice, Womb of the divine Incarnation.
    Rejoice, you through whom creation is renewed.
    Rejoice, you from whom the Creator is born a Babe.

    Rejoice, O Bride Ever-Virgin

    From the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, 1st stanza

  26. Max Avatar

    I’m not offended by the Theotokos and can call her Theotokos with no fear. She is the one who bore the Word of God. The prophets and scribes through the ages may have written and spoken the Word, but she bore the Word in her womb and suckled the Word at her breast and is rightly called God-Blessed Ever-Virgin, Mother of God.

    I can even believe that she intercedes mightily for our sake and that her prayers can cause miracles, by God’s power.

    I can’t, however, sing a hymn to her or praise her like a goddess with overt language that has been reserved for God alone. Call it poetry and justify it however you want, but it’s still crossing the line in my heart and many others who understand that the restrictions to honoring one God apply also to the departed saints, no matter their ascended state.

    Why should such a practice be forced on someone who has issues with it in conscience? It was not the practice of St. Paul or any Apostle. Why not stick with their way of life and imitate them as much as possible?

    Jehovah’s Witnesses suffer for their offensive beliefs too, but they do not suffer for the Cross of Jesus Christ. It’s the message of the Cross you ought to be suffering for, not some obscure hymns to Mary that evolved over time and became inflated to the point where it takes a Greek scholar to figure out that they’re not meant literally in the first place. (Some Orthodox Christians would even argue that it’s not merely poetic!)

    Wouldn’t it be more proper to address God with such hymns, but have Mary as the subject of the hymn, not the one being addressed to such an extreme?

    No Apostle enjoined this on their flocks and no disciple of the Apostles did this. Why not return to their simplicity? Why maintain something that was only introduced as a practice hundreds of years down the road after the Apostles?

  27. fatherstephen Avatar


    You should not do something that violates your conscinece in such a form. I understand your historical case. All I can say is that this is not only the faith of the Fathers, but of the martyrs as well. And the Church’s witness to what she knows is as it is. I do not believe it to be the import of paganism into the faith. The martyrs who were dying because they were not pagan sang these hymns as well – pagans didn’t care about Mary. And thes songs to the saints are songs honoring martyrs who did not yield to the pagans.

    But if your conscience tells you something else, don’t try to force it. And I won’t try to force it either. I will simply say that the theory of Church development that is the Protestant take on the early Church is wrong. But only grace will finally make it possible to know that.

    Reading something like Pelikan’s history of the Church, etc., would be better than listening to me.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar


    Your demand to see something from the lips of Ignatius or Irenaeus, etc., makes sense. But, for instance, neither they nor the Apostolic writings give us a liturgical text. The first we see is from Hippolytus in late 2nd century, or Justin Martyr’s brief description around 150 or so. The Church would not allow even catechumens to attend the “mystery” of the Eucharist until many centuries later.

    We have the text to the hymn on papyrus from the 3rd century that you originally questioned. There are writings on the walls of the catacombs, going back to the first century, beneath a drawing of the Theotokos with a short sentence asking her prayers.

    The worship life of the Church does several things:

    1. If offers the worship that is due to God alone and does so in the language of Scripture especially.

    2. It includes the doctrines of the Church, interwoven in its praises, so that we “pray what we believe.”

    3. It includes hymns honoring various marytrs or saints for their deeds who are examples to the faithful.

    Some Scripture that does #3:

    St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, the famous rollcall of faith:

    Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old received divine approval. By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear. By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts; he died, but through his faith he is still speaking.
    By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was
    attested as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were
    strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his burial. By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king; for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.
    28 By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the first-born might not touch them. By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land; but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies. And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated of whom the world was not worthy — wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

    This is a wonderful hymn of praise. Did Paul speak excessively when he said the world was not worthy of them? Should he have reserved such language for God?

    Or from Sirach (a Jewish book, that Christians accepted into the Canon, and Protestants rejected for no good reason). The Book predates the New Testament by at least 200 or more years:

    Sirach 44:1 Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations. The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and were men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and proclaiming prophecies; leaders of the people in their deliberations and in understanding of learning for the people, wise in their words of instruction; those who composed musical tunes, and set forth verses in writing; rich men furnished with resources, living peaceably in their habitations — all these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times. There are some of them who have left a name, so that men declare their praise. And there are some who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived; they have become as though they had not been born, and so have their children after them. But these were men of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their prosperity will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance to their children’s children. Their descendants stand by the covenants; their children also, for their sake. Their posterity will continue for ever, and their glory will not be blotted out. Their bodies were buried in peace, and their name lives to all generations. Peoples will declare their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise. Enoch pleased the Lord, and was taken up; he was an example of repentance to all generations. Noah was found perfect and righteous; in the time of wrath he was taken in exchange; therefore a remnant was left to the earth when the flood came. Everlasting covenants were made with him that all flesh should not be blotted out by a flood. Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found like him in glory; he kept the law of the Most High, and was taken into covenant with him; he established the covenant in his flesh, and when he was tested he was found faithful. Therefore the Lord assured him by an oath that the nations would be blessed through his posterity; that he would multiply him like the dust of the earth, and exalt his posterity like the stars, and cause them to inherit from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. To Isaac also he gave the same assurance for the sake of Abraham his father. The blessing of all men and the covenant he made to rest upon the head of Jacob; he acknowledged him with his blessings, and gave him his inheritance; he determined his portions, and distributed them among twelve tribes. From his descendants the Lord brought forth a man of mercy, who found favor in the sight of all flesh and was beloved by God and man, Moses, whose memory is blessed. He made him equal in glory to the holy ones, and made him great in the fears of his enemies. By his words he caused signs to cease; the Lord glorified him in the presence of kings. He gave him commands for his people, and showed him part of
    his glory. He sanctified him through faithfulness and meekness; he chose him out of all mankind.

    And it continues on like this for chapters… The Church did not have to look to paganism for examples of praise of its great men and women. It had Scripture to show them the way. These words are full of words like glory and praise, etc., with no contradiction to the Jewish ear.

    The most classic hymn to the Theotokos, repeated in our services is:

    More honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word, true Theotokos, we magnify you!

    There is nothing in that hymn that is more excessive than the words of Sirach. Read Sirach if you want to know what Jewish ears at the time of Christ thought was acceptable.

  29. Max Avatar

    I have no problem ascribing glory to the Theotokos for her role in bearing the Lord God, her perfection in being a mother to Christ, and for her loyalty unmatched to Christ, for her purity unmatched among humans other than Christ.

    As great as she is, I can’t express these things in a personal manner as to a deity up in heaven. Through all of your suggested readings, there is no instance where a person engaged in such an activity. Even Mary, exalted as she is, would ask that we not do such a thing…

    “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren the prophets,” Mary would say if she were with us, “Worship God.”

    I would obey her, not continue doing something she cannot accept. You know as well as I that a righteous humble woman will ascribe all glory to God and avoid such a thing.

    And, if we wish to praise God for the Incarnation, we can put our time, energy, and creativity into praising God for the Incarnation. There’s no need to invent prayers to Mary to stress the reality of that Truth.

    This present life is short enough as it is to give praise to God. Who has the time to praise others in heaven during a gathering to worship God? The gathering of saints is to worship God, not to be diverted to multiple objects of praise.

    Not everything martyrs believed was perfectly true. Some martyrs believed all would be saved. Some believed that even Satan would be reconciled. Their martyrdom doesn’t make it true.

  30. MuleChewingBriars Avatar

    Max –

    How do you worship the triune God?

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    Max, your point is well made. I think the Orthodox response to it is that honor given to Mary is primarily to rightly understand and honor the fullness of the incarnation and does not detract from Christ.

    My experience as an Orthodox Christian, and a former Protestant, is that the honor given to saints, etc., does not in any way distract or lessen the worship of God, but redounds to His glory. After all, it is by His inspiration that she said, “All generations will call me blessed.” The Church did not invent this.

    From outside it may look like one thing, but from the inside it is quite another. I find Orthodox worship of God far more intense than anything I ever knew before, and only the more intensified because “God is glorified in his saints” (from the Psalms, LXX translation).

    Phrases in Scripture such as “to the praise of the glory of His grace” more or less summarize what is the heart of honor given to His saints. Apart from God they are nothing. That they are anything is simply to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Theotokos included). Why God has chosen to give blessedness to His bride is beyond me, except that I’m a married man myself, and I delight in my bride. God delights in His bride (the Church) as well (“He will exult over thee with singing”). If God sings over us, how can I keep silent? How can honoring His bride in any way detract from the bridegroom? I also agree that in Mary’s humility she would direct all honor from herself to Him. And I am sure that she does that constantly before Him now. Just as the rest of us will one day cast our crowns before Him. But you have to have a crown to cast it.

    Do you know the Protestant hymn: “Ye watchers and ye holy ones…” I think its Lutheran in origin. The second verse in English (unless someone changes it – but it always read this way in the Anglican hymnal):

    O higher than the cherubim, More glorious than the seraphim, lead their praises, Alleluia! Thou bearer of the eternal Word, Most gracious magnify the Lord, Alleluia, etc.

    It’s just a versified form of the Orthodox hymn to the Theotokos. Most people sang it without knowing what they were doing, pity that.

  32. Max Avatar

    I worship the Father in the Spirit and in Truth (Christ.)

    “All generations will call me blessed” doesn’t mean sending up pray to her personally, but only acknowledging to self, others, and God that she is indeed God-Blessed.

    Also, she didn’t say, “All generations will call me ‘the only Blessed and Pure one’ through Greek poetry that most people won’t even understand.”

    Interesting note you posted about the hymn. You’re right on that. However, you’ll notice that the Center of praise in this hymn is God… The hymn calls the Saints and Angels in heaven to praise God – a manner of praise that can also be found in the Psalms. This is much different than making Mary, an Angel, or a Saint the center of praise, though.

    I appreciate your lengthy replies, but I know length is relative in Orthodoxy, so I won’t necessarily chalk it up as patience. 🙂

  33. fatherstephen Avatar


    I hope I am patient, forgive me if I’m not. I think the essential point you make is that praise in any form to someone other than God constitutes worship. I understand the point.

    The 7th ecumenical council, which I understand that you do not accept its authority, declared that it was proper and fitting to give honor to the Mother of God and the saints.

    Of course, this was distinguished from the worship that belongs to God alone.

    Obviously they did not speak this in a vacuum but during a controversy surrounding the issue (icons). It’s interesting to note that Islam probably played a role in the influences that created opposition to the icons. I have always thought that certain forms of Protestant Christianity bore a strong resemblance to Islam (with a Christian veneer).

    I suspect that were you to read St. John of Damascus on the Holy Images and remained unconvinced, nothing I could say or do would make a difference. All I can say is that for 1500 years the Church had no sustained iconoclast representation (not until Protestantism). I contend that Protestantism is modernist, and cut off from the historic roots of the faith and do not arrive at correct answers on many essential points, but instead attack what has been the received Tradition of the Church hallowed by the practice of many men and women whose holy lives, and miraculous ministries bear witness to God’s approval. I’ll stack that up against any mega-church modernism any day.

  34. mrh Avatar

    Max, I will not try to persuade you either, but I am curious if you have actually heard these hymns to Mary and the other saints done in the context of full Orthodox liturgical services?

  35. Max Avatar

    There’s nothing wrong with flat Icons as long as a person doesn’t become superstitious or imagine there’s a real person inside the paint – or treat it like some sort of idol, serving it or protecting it more than a brother or sister.

    Of course, certain forms of Christianity may seem like the spirit of Islam dressed up with Christian clothing, but Eastern Orthodoxy in many ways seems like the spirit of Hinduism dressed up in Christian clothing… so one ought to look beyond the surface, right?

    Also, one can understand an Iconoclastic response if Christians are serving pictures or carvings more than they are serving their neighbor or are caught up in superstition. Like destroying the bronze serpent in the OT, an Iconoclastic response may be necessary to refocus hearts of the people. In view of the superstition of Roman Catholicism, bowing down to statues of saints and such, such a response is certainly understandable.

    What do Icons have to do with extreme forms of praise to Mary? If all you’re doing is appealing to the authority of a Church Council, then all I can ask is… Why isn’t Orthodoxy following all the other decisions of the Councils properly? Were the Councils not infallible in all ways?

  36. fatherstephen Avatar


    Yes the Councils are recognized as infallible and of course the Orthodox follow them. There are points in canon law that are not in contention, but which historical circumstance has made difficult to resolve, but nothing that we have repudiated or renounced. We’re not legalists – God is a merciful God and gives us the mercy necessary to become fully what we are called to be. Every priest and bishop, every adult convert takes an oath that they accept the councils. And these are not empty words. Do you judge another man’s servant?

  37. fatherstephen Avatar


    Let me be a bit more nuanced in this answer. The Councils are considered to be infallible particularly in the dogmatic proclamations. Councils also compiled and created canon law which has a variety of purposes. Some canons are for the good order of the Church and fit varying times and places and in some cases even cease to be relevant. Other canons give moral norms and other such guidance. Some canons, though given for the good order of the Church, are not considered as fallible or infallible, simply and agreed procedure or rule, not dogmatic in nature. For instance, the requirement that Bishops be drawn from the ranks of celibate priests has been in place for many centuries but has no dogmatic quality to it, and could, in theory, be changed by a later council.

    In modern Orthodoxy, the significant canonical issues surround the question of jurisdictions (overlapping) and calendar both of which became confounded by the results of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Orthodox Church is slowly, and surely, coming out of those effects (things move slowly in Orthodoxy). We have seen the reconciliation of a significant part of Orthodoxy that had been separated as a result of the revolution. I dare say that in time we’ll see other matters resolved as well. They are being constantly discussed and worked with – and I am confident that the Church will be healed as God wills. What does not exist is any Orthodox Church teaching that jurisdictionalism is canonical or permanent. Nor teaching anything contrary to the canons.

    But it is very easy to misunderstand the relationship of the canons to the Church and even dogma to the Church if you look at it from a Western perspective. Orthodoxy is not legalistic but organic and sees dogma and canonical order as existing solely for the salvation of mankind. Everything is judged by that rule.

    I would even say that though you think you know what you are saying when you disagree with the Church’s teaching and practice viz. saints, their veneration, etc., you do not know that you are saying. You don’t know what you need for your salvation (in its fullness). The veneration of saints is not only a permissable practice within Orthodoxy, but is indeed necessary to the fullness of the faith and the fullness of our salvation. If you knew what it meant to be fully human these things would be clear – but you – me – generally most of us – don’t yet know what it means to be fully human, nor fully in right relationship with God through Christ.

    OF course, what I am saying is not meant to be a personal judgment (I don’t know you) but a dogmatic assessment of the nature of the human predicament. You will not know what it means to be in right relationship with God without also having right relationship with the saints, because you cannot have a relationship with God without a relationship with the saints (we do not become part of a headless body). Veneration is the proper relationship of brothers and sisters in Christ, and particularly to those who have been manifested to the Church as saints.

    Christianity is not a “me and Jesus” religion. It is not an individual matter, but is a corporate salvation. We are not saved apart from one another. Veneration of saints is the opposite of murder, if you will. If you want to learn not to be a murderer, then you must learn to rightly honor those things or persons who should be honored. It is the healing of the hardness of our heart. Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these – you do it unto Me, Christ says.

    God has united Himself to us in our humanity and us to Him. You cannot know God apart from His saints, because He has not manifested Himself to us in such a way. He is the Lord of Sabaoth, the Head of the Church.

    Can you know the incarnate Christ and not know her who gave Him flesh? Can you honor the flesh He took from Her and not honor Her who gave it?

    I understand you scruples about the nature of Orthodox hymnography but these are mere scruples. God Himself has demonstrated amply and repeatedly His blessing on the Church and her worship and Himself honors the saints with miracles.

    It is true that Protestants have largely rejected these things, but Protestants have also gone crazy (at least a large part of them) and do all sorts of things. There are conservatives, I’ll grant, who are seeking to do God’s will, but the seeds of the same madness remain. There is plenty of good within much of Protestantism for which I am deeply grateful. But there are deep weaknesses and a blindness to many things that are necessary to the fullness of the Christian life.

    BTW, if you think Orthodoxy resembles Hinduism, you don’t know Hinduism, just as it is clear that you do not understand Orthodoxy. Read someone like Clendenin. At least he’s a Protestant who accurately understands what the Orthodox are about.

  38. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell


    If you are truly interested to understand the Orthodox use of painted icons of the saints (as well as the aural icons of hymnography composed and addressed to saints) and not just in throwing around comparisons of Orthodoxy to paganism, Islam and Hinduism, I offer this simple, yet profound, statement preserved from my conversations with Ksenia Pokrovskaya, one of the foremost Orthodox iconographers of our times and a peerless apologist on the meaning and use of icons.

    “Pictures of the people we love warm our hearts and remind us why we love them – pictures of a favorite aunt, great-great-grandfather, who we never met, or a beloved child who died suddenly. Pictures support our love for them and tell us something about our past that we would not know without some image to tell us about them. St. John says, ‘God is love!’ But what is the image of this love? We can never make an image great enough to describe this love. What the icon offers us is a picture, an image, of persons who were so in love with God that their lives and deeds teach us how to love Him. This is what the icon is, an image of their love and our love. We do not worship the images (pictures) of these God lovers. We ask those persons depicted in the icons to help us love God the way they do.”

    On a fundamental level, that is, the most accessible level to iconoclastic detractors, icons form the family album of all Christians gone before us to Glory. What is so often misunderstood by the observer is that Orthodox Christians see no time/space distance between themselves and the company of heaven “alive in Christ.” Kissing, bowing to and placing flowers on their icons are gestures of gratefulness and repentance for every unloving act against our neighbor, which alone separates us from that “great crowd of witnesses” who stand before the Throne of God, interceding on our behalf to “imitate,” as St. Paul says, their way of life.

    May God give us grace!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. About those “Christian Romance” novels you mentioned: there is a certain irony that properly-written romances with strong Christian undercurrents aren’t…

  2. The consumer-driven religious life has resulted in Churches that major in personal fulfillment with little attention to doctrine and sacrament.…

  3. Fr. Stephen, At times like this I find it helpful to remind myself that God promised the fullness of life,…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast