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Theotokos: Birth Giver to God

The Eastern tradition of venerating the Virgin Mary differs from that of the Latin, or Western, tradition.

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!”

But how do you account for the fact that the Angelic Salutation or Hail Mary, common to East and West because both fuse Holy Scripture’s words of the Angel Gabriel to those of St. Elizabeth, differs markedly in each version before the prayer is half over? Here is the Eastern version of the Ave Maria:

Hail! Mother of God, Virgin Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have given birth to the Savior (and Deliverer) of our souls.

Notice that the first phrase points out the Divine paradox of Mary’s existence: both Mother and Ever-Virgin. The East makes explicit immediately that Mary is Theotokos, Mother of God. The Latin form only mentions this truth in the second half of the prayer and stresses the role of Mary as intercessor before her Divine Son on behalf of sinners. The Byzantine form does not mention Jesus by His human name but continues on the divine chord struck by the opening “Mother of God” by calling the Lord by His messianic title, Savior. For all this the Hail Mary is used far more sparingly in the Byzantine East than in the Latin West. Its actual official use is confined to Saturday night Vespers during the year and to daily Vespers during Lent.

But what of its manifold repetition while meditating on the mysteries of our faith – that tenderest and simplest of devotions, the Rosary? Does the East ignore the Rosary too? Far from ignoring the Rosary, the East can lay claim to having “invented” it. The early fathers of the desert used knotted ropes to count their prayers. To this day the classic Eastern form of the Rosary, komvoskhinion or chotki, is the prayer rope with one hundred knots – three series of thirty-three with a tassle for the hundredth. This rope is not used to count Hail Marys but rather to order the repetition of the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Its secular transformation into the kombaloi or masbaha, worry beads, is commonplace throughout the East among both Christians and Moslems.

The Rosary of Our Lady did spread throughout the Christian East. What at first seemed to be a late foreign import of missionaries now appears from a recent document to have a long authentic Eastern tradition.

A few years ago, a samizdat (privately and illegally circulated) biography of a Russian monk reached the West from the Soviet Union. Born in 1850, Staretz (Elder) Zachariah lived through the Bolshevik terror until the Stalinist armageddon of 1936. He was devoted to the Mother of God under the titles Swift-to-Hear, She-Who-Knows-the-Way, and Joy-Above-All-Joys. He earnestly recommended that his spiritual children recite the Hail Mary twenty-four times a day – one for each hour. He especially encouraged what he called the Prayer Rule of the Mother of God: one hundred fifty repetitions of the Ave, divided equally into three sessions of fifty. He bases this practice on the teaching of St. Seraphim of Sarov, probably Russia’s most beloved saint:

“This Rule was given by the Mother of God herself in about the eighth century, and at one time all Christians fulfilled it. We Orthodox have forgotten about it, and St. Seraphim has reminded us of this Rule.”

Not only was one to repeat the Angelic Salutation but to divide the repetitions into series of tens, or decades, and during each decade recall a mystery of our faith and pray for a specific intention. For example: first decade: Let us remember the birth of the Mother of God; let us pray for mothers, fathers, and children.

Despite the absence of prayer beads, who can fail to recognize the Rosary here? Can we conclude, then, that the Rosary is equally the spiritual patrimony of both East and West? When practiced by Eastern Christians, does the Rosary not return home from a long, nostalgic exile?

No one suggests that the Rosary replace the time-honored liturgical offices to the Mother of God so beloved of Eastern Catholics. To this day many of the faithful know the entire Paraclesis and Acathistos from memory. Nor does the East think for a moment of replacing the Saturdays of Lent or the first two weeks of August – those special Marian times of the year – with May or October rites. Still less, though, will any devout follower of Jesus wish to gainsay His Mother’s desire to save the world through the Rosary. Has Russia already discovered the weapon of her deliverance in the Prayer Rule of the Mother of God?

Father Romanos is a regular contributor to Catholic Near East Magazine.

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