Theotokions of Cheesefare & East vs West

Jump to the Theotokia & Reflection

What are they?

Troparia, Aposticha, Kontakia, so many words, so many hymns! What are they? Why do they have different names? Where did they come from and why are they used?

Troparia is a short hymn of one stanza, or a sesries of stanzas. The troparia are generally sung in one of the eight tones of the church, although some special troparia have their own unique melodies, such as the Hymn of Kassiani which we will sing on Holy Tuesday.

If you pay attention to the services of the church, you will notice that we generally also have a special hymn called a Theotokion. This is simply a Troparia which is focused about the Virgin Mary. But this is Orthodoxy, we can’t make it that simple!  During vespers, the Theotokion is also called the Dogmaticon. It is chanted during the little entrance and will deal specifically with the incarnation. A theotokion which is sung about the Virgin at the cross is called a Stavrotheotokion (Stavros is Cross in Greek). We hear these most often on Wednesdays and Fridays, as those weekly commemorations are those of  the Cross.

During the week of Cheesefare, we see these Stevrotheotokion at vespers Tuesday and Thursday (since Vespers technically marks the new day)

Here are the Stavrotheotokia for Cheesefare week:

When the most pure Virgin saw her Son on the tree, her heart was pierced with a sword of sorrow and she cried aloud: How can the creator of all be lifted on the cross as one condemned in His desire to save mankind? (Tuesday Vespers)

Pure one, when you beheld suspended on the cross the vine which blossomed unplanted in your womb, you wept and cried in lamentation: My Child, release the sweetness which will drive away the drunkenness of passions, for the sake of your mother’s entreaties Compassionate One! (Thursday Vespers)

You will notice some parallels in the three. Each begins with a lamentation of the Theotokos, as a mother. At the same time, we also tend to see the Virgin’s knowledge of the crucifixion as something which is a necessity for salvation of the world. She laments for her Son as a Mother, but still demonstrates her faith in Him as God our Savior.

Note the extreme difference between this and Mary, Mother of Sorrows, a medieval hymn from the West:

Iuxta crucem tecum stare
ac me tibi sociare
in planctu desidero.

Fac ut portem Christi mortem
passionis fac me sortem
et plagas recolere.

I want to stand with
you next to the cross
and I want to join you in your grieving.

Make me bear Christ’s death
make me share his passion
make me recall his wounds.

We see there is no joy, no hope no reference to the Resurrection at all.

You will notice this difference also in our iconography, versus western art. Observe below:


Orthodox Icon:

  • Christ is upright
  • Body is healthy
  • Looks asleep (mouth closed, peaceful face)

Western Painting

  • Christ is clearly dead and lifeless
  • Sickly, decaying body
  • Looks dead in the face

Although we agree that the Virgin would have naturally felt the excruciating pain of witnessing her son on the Cross. However, our hymnography never forgets that the Cross is also the means to Salvation. Witnessing Him on the Cross is to show us his extreme love for us, his mere creation. But Christ is Life, not death. Death was conquered by the Cross, the Cross did not conquer Christ.

May we continue together on our Lenten Journey to the Cross and Witness His glorious Resurrection!