We've also seen that it is right and proper to address persons other than God in prayer--reclaiming the meaning of "pray" from Protestants, who seek to carry the day by persuasive definition ("Since 'pray' means talk with God," they say, "by definition we must not pray to anyone other than God."). "Pray" means "ask." Specifically, we can address prayers to the saints because they are not dead, but living, and since their condition is 'far better' than ours, and since the Church has practiced these prayers--east and west, from the earliest days, we can be confident that they hear us. The Church is a communion of love, and one of the key ways we express that mutual love is by mutual prayer. (Most arguments against the intercession of the saints are arguments against intercessory prayer in general.)
Now we come to the most difficult part of the prayer: "Most holy Theotokos, save us." What can that mean?
It doesn't mean that we are asking Mary to save us, apart from her Son. The liturgical context alone demonstrates that, for the next words the priest speaks are "Glory to thee, O Christ, our God and our hope, glory to thee."
Nor does it mean, as I have even heard some well-meaning Orthodox say, that Mary saves us from temporal distress and Christ saves us from eternal distress. Such a "division of labor" approach doesn't protect the uniqueness of the Holy Trinity; it actually obscures it--as if God were only personally concerned with our destination, and delegated the path along that way to others.
> is from death, first and foremost.
The Psalmist cries out, "The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the LORD: "O LORD, I beseech thee, save my life!"" When the Lord answers his prayer, the Psalmist says, "Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I walk before the LORD in the land of the living."
And St. Paul explains the work of Christ this way: "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. "
Our lifelong bondage, sin, stems from the fear of death with which we're born into a broken world. And of course, God's salvation frees us from sin as well as from death.
EXCURSUS: On original sin and the TheotokosThis is also why when the Theotokos says, "My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior," she is not implying thereby that she has sinned. A little excursus here: the historic position of both the East and of Rome is that Mary did not sin--even early Protestants like Dr. Luther held this view.
Both Rome and the Protestants hold a view of original sin as original guilt. This leads Rome to make a great exception in Mary's case, by claiming that she was conceived immaculately, that is, without original sin. And it leads the Protestants to reject Mary's sinlessness, because no one apart from Christ is conceived without original sin.
The Protestants rightly reject the Immaculate Conception, because it would have the effect of making Mary different from the rest of humanity. And Rome rightly defends Mary's sinlessness, because that is the universal teaching of the Church before Protestantism appeared.
But if we hold, with the Orthodox faith, that the heart of "original sin" is mortality ("On the day you eat of the fruit, you shall surely die..."), mortality which leads all people, afraid of death, into sin--then we can affirm the ancient Church's teaching without the need for making Mary an exception to the universal rule. Like everyone else except her Son, the Theotokos is subject to death. (In two weeks we mark the feast of the Dormition, her falling asleep in Christ. She did not remain in death, but that's a subject for another post.) We can also make sense of the Lord's saying, "No one takes my life from me. I both lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again." He alone is born not subject to death; when he dies, he does not surrender to the inevitable, but freely gives himself up for us all.
> concerns the whole man, body and soul.
This is hard to grasp sometimes, because translators routinely render the Greek words sozo and soteria with words like "deliver" or "make whole." When Christ heals, he often says, "Go in peace; your faith has made you whole." The phrase "made you whole" is translating the Greek word sozo. (Those of us who are older may remember the King James Version's rendering: "Go in peace; your faith has saved you.") Likewise, in Philippians 1, when Paul speaks of his hope of release from prison, he says, "This will work out for my deliverance..."--but the word translated "deliverance" is simply soteria.
Why don't the translators simply say, "save" or "salvation" in these contexts? It seems they have a bias for seeing salvation as a 'spiritual' matter, or one concerning the soul only. But salvation, biblically, is a body-and-soul personal reality. St. Gregory the Theologian refuted Apollinaris by saying, "That which the Word did not assume, that he did not redeem." We can flip that saying in this context and say, "If salvation is merely a matter for the soul, then why did the Word become flesh?"--an act which involves more than just the body, but certainly no less than the body.
> concerns the whole of life--indeed, stretches from eternity to eternity
Salvation is not merely that at one fixed point in this life, or at the end of time, God judges us "not guilty." Salvation began before the foundation of the world, according to St. Paul in Ephesians 1; indeed, St. John speaks of those whose names were written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. Salvation continues throughout our earthly life in all its dimensions, as we have seen above. And salvation extends into eternity.
> includes all the means by which the Triune God brings about salvation.
Here we get to the crux of the matter. Well-meaning Protestants stumble at the expression, "Most holy Theotokos, save us," because, they say, God alone saves us. It is true, of course, that God alone saves us. We must remember that heresy takes a partial truth and uses it to renounce the fullness of truth (the word 'heresy' comes from the Greek verb meaning 'to choose.')
Some Protestants apply the dictum "God alone saves" more consistently. So baptists will say, "Baptism does not save you." Their conclusion is based on a simple syllogism: God alone saves; baptism is not God; therefore baptism does not save. Similarly, God alone saves; the Theotokos is not God; therefore the Theotokos does not save.
But the Holy Scriptures do not only use the verb "save" with the subject "God" or "Christ." St. Paul tells Timothy,
"Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers."
Subject: "you" (Timothy)
Object: "yourself and your hearers."
St. Paul is not saying to Timothy, "You, not God, will save yourself and your hearers." He is saying, "The ministry and ministers of the Gospel are one component in bringing about salvation." Elsewhere he says the same thing: "But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!"" (Orthodox believers regularly kiss the right hand of bishops and priests, and even in anger, they speak with measured tones--not because bishops and priests are ontologically different or better, but because God uses them as the means by which he delivers salvation to his people. Speaking as a priest, I am deeply conscious of my unworthiness to receive such respect. When I and other Orthodox priests sign ourselves, "The unworthy priest," we aren't 'blowing smoke.')
St. Peter says, likewise, "Corresponding to this, baptism now saves you." (I Peter 3:21)
Baptism saves, because God uses baptism to join us to the death and rising of Christ.
St. Paul says to the Philippians, as we have seen, "This will turn out for my salvation through your prayers and the help of the Holy Spirit." Clearly the prayers of others play a role in our salvation. Note also how St. Paul links prayer to the help of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is a synergy, a theanthropic work. That work is a work, not only of the Head, but also of the Body (Acts 1:1; Eph. 4:16).
Biblically speaking, then, the words "save" or "salvation" can be used with subjects other than the Triune God--not because those other persons or things save us apart from him, but because they are means involved in the whole process of salvation. One of those things by which salvation comes about, is the prayers of others.
Is Mary involved in that whole process of salvation? To ask the question is to answer it. "When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law." Even the first promise of salvation is not made apart from her; God says to the serpent, "I will put enmity between your seed and the Seed of the woman. He will crush your head, and you will bruise his heel." She freely responded "yes" to God's promise. She gave birth to God.
That work also includes her intercession, as we see in St. John 2. At the wedding in Cana, the Theotokos sees the need of the young couple. She intercedes for them with her Son--not that he who knows all things was unaware of that need, but rather that he who is Love incarnate delights in his people's cries motivated by love. She tells the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." And he responds to her request by meeting the need of the couple. St. John concludes, "This first (arche) of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee; he manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him."
St. John is not in the habit of recording random events in his Gospel. They are completely historical, to be sure; but they also serve to reveal timeless reality. John 2, as the first, chief, and root (the word arche carries all those connotations) of signs shows this especially.
So when we pray, "Most holy Theotokos, save us," we are asking her to intercede for us before her Son. Why not simply say, "Most holy Theotokos, intercede for us"? Because, as we have seen, God manifests his glory in his saints and through them. And while the chief way they work in our salvation is by their prayers, God has not limited himself to that way. He has also manifested his glory through them in other ways as well. The most famous of these is, of course, his delivering Constantinople through her in the sixth century--an act which serves as the basis of the Church's hymn: "To thee the Champion leader"--
"To Thee, the Champion Leader, we Thy servants dedicate a feast of victory and of thanksgiving as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos: but as Thou art one with might which is invincible, from all dangers that can be do Thou deliver us, that we may cry to Thee: Rejoice, Thou Bride Unwedded!"