At the beginning of the Nativity Fast (the Forty-day period before Christmas), our Church celebrates the Entrance of the Theotokos to the Temple. The three-year old Mary is led into the Temple of Jerusalem, and will be honored as the living temple where the Son of God dwells. As the hymn of the Feast Day wonderfully proclaims: “Today the living Temple of the holy glory of Christ our God, the pure Maiden who alone is blessed among women, is offered in the Temple of the Law, that she may make her dwelling in the Holy Place” (2nd Sticheron of the Feast Day at the Vespers service).
What we see here is that the Church, from the very beginning, has declared the pure daughter of Nazareth as the living temple of Christ. This relationship with Him, and the qualities of the Virgin Mary, make her unique. Not only is she the most blessed among all women (or any human being in history), but she is even higher than the Angels: “more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare, more glorious than the Seraphim…,” as we chant every day.
There are many heterodox people who do not understand why we, in the Orthodox Church, honor the Theotokos so highly. This is because they do not understand the pieces of truth which one finds in the holy Gospels. However, if they would seek the truth with humility and prayer, their eyes would be opened. This happened to a heterodox student in a Theological Seminary, who had been taught not to honor the Theotokos. After much prayer, he opened the Gospel of Luke and noticed the great respect that Elizabeth showed to Mary when receiving her into her house. He burst into tears: Who am I (thought with contrition) to not honor the Mother of God (and her Son), whom Elizabeth (the venerable wife of Zachariah the priest), calls Mother of the Lord (of God). By just being in the presence of Mary, Elizabeth “was filled with the Holy Spirit” and proclaimed those wonderful words which are recorded in the Gospel! (see Luke 1: 39-45). After that, the student asked to be catechized and became Orthodox.
The special honor attributed to the person of the Theotokos is fully evident in the New Testament: Gabriel the Archangel addresses her this way: “Rejoice, highly favored one by God’s grace! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women (blessed by God more than any other woman)” (Luke 1:28). In the Orthodox Church, we deeply honor the Theotokos, in accordance with her own word, which came from her mouth as a prophecy: “henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). This became even more evident at the foot of the Cross, when Christ presented His Mother to the Apostle John, to take care of her as his own mother. Since that time, the Most Holy one became the mother of the Church, and of all of the faithful.
My brothers and sisters, when we read and understand the Holy Scriptures correctly, the truth is revealed to us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and this truth is what the Orthodox Church has purely maintained. So when it comes to the topic of veneration of the Theotokos, our Church also avoids the exaggerations of other heterodox, who are inventing new doctrines in order to support them. These doctrines are innovations, and unknown to the One, Holy, and undivided Church. What we Orthodox offer to the Theotokos is a veneration of honor (as to the Saints), and not worship which is reserved only for Jesus Christ as God-man, or the other two Persons of the Holy Trinity (God-the Father and the Holy Spirit).
The great significance of the Theotokos lies, according to the holy Fathers, in what she did when she was called to become the Mother of the Son of God: she obeyed! Of her own free will, she co-operated with God’s plan and became the instrument for the salvation of the world. Without her YES to God, it would have been impossible for our salvation to have been accomplished. This is the reason why in the conscience of the Church, she remains the bridge leading to God, the haven of the Word, and the great intercessor for the faithful. Our All-holy Mother has a major place in the worship which we faithful offer to God. We often commemorate in our churches “our most holy, pure, blessed, glorious Lady, Theotokos and ever virgin Mary”, so that we may be encouraged by her obedience and devotion to God, to also fully commit ourselves and each other to Christ our God. Additionally, Church worship aims at making the faithful be like the All-holy Mother, in that she became the model of Christ. The goal is that we become models of her, holy and united with Christ.
The great Figure of our All-holy Mother is particularly exalted at the Divine Liturgy. It is at the most sacred moment, when immediately after the consecration of the Holy Gifts, the Celebrant recites loudly that the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of the Lord was offered “especially” in honor and glory “for our most holy, pure, blessed, glorious Lady Theotokos and ever virgin Mary.” This means that the Theotokos is always present in the Church and in the gatherings of worship, so that she may intercede to the Lord for the sake of the faithful who invoke her name. We can see this expressed in the icon of the Theotokos as Platytera (“the One Larger that the Heavens”), seen at the apse of the Holy Altar of our churches (or on the iconostasis, the icon screen between the nave and the altar area), with hands outstretched in a position of invocation.
Brothers and sisters, let us ensure that we seek refuge in our affectionate Mother for everything we need, with the certainty that her interceding prayers are extremely powerful. At the same time, may we be inspired by her shining example and try to become like her, in her obedience and devotion to Christ. Amen.