31 July 2008

"Most holy Theotokos, save us!" (Part 1)

On another blog, Pr. William Weedon cited a post-communion prayer to the Theotokos, with the hint that it's idolatrous. He was nicely answered by Reader Christopher Orr on his blog Orrologion. But the exchange did suggest a theme to me, for some subsequent posts: to take some of the things said to/about the Theotokos--typically jarring to Protestant ears--and examine them theologically.

First on the list, because it can be very jarring for Protestants, is the exclamation the priest makes at the end of each Vespers service: "Most holy Theotokos, save us!" (These words are also sung sotto voce by the people during the Litany's commemoration of Mary.)

How are we to understand them? Let's break them down into subject, verb, and object.

We call upon Mary as "Most holy Theotokos." Theotokos means, literally, "the one who gave birth to God." Mary gave birth to Jesus; Jesus is God; therefore, Mary gave birth to God. Our Lord's humanity--all of it--he gets from her. Each Christmastide the Church sings,

"Today the Virgin cometh unto the cave, to give birth to the Word, who was born before all ages; begotten in a manner that defies description. Rejoice, therefore, O Universe, if thou shouldst hear, and glorify with the angels and the shepherds, (glorify) Him who by His will shall become a new born babe, and who is our God before all ages."

We call her "most holy." Holiness is a feature belonging to the Triune God. The seraphim cry out, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The wonder of the Christian faith is that through the Incarnation, God shares that holiness, that glory, with creatures. First and foremost among those creatures is Mary. God's free gift of his Son was met by her free response: "Let it be to me according to your word."

She is most holy--higher than all the saints, "more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim"--because in her body she carried the One whom the heavens cannot contain, and in her soul she trusted, loved and yielded her will to the will of the Triune God.

The Church teaches, and even early Protestants like Luther believed, that she had no taint of sin. God made her a pure and holy vessel; that is why Archangel Gabriel greeted her, "Hail, O highly favored one!" She was born subject to death, as are all people; but the shadow of sin, the self-seeking that marks our lives was not found in hers.

And so we address our words to the most holy Theotokos.


123 said...

For those interested in reading my little reflection on prayers to the Theotokos,"On Prayer to the Saints; or, 'Everything which is God's became man's'", see:


I thank Fr. Gregory for even mentioning it.

Fr. Jon M. Ellingworth said...

Rev. Hogg,

You have skillfully sidestepped the issue(s) at hand with the prayer Weedon posted. Also, it would have been most helpful had you posted the prayer on your blog so that your readers could judge for themselves. Permit me to assist:

O All-holy Lady Theotokos,
All Christians who confess the Athanasian Creed will agree that Mary is the Mother of God and that the eternally begotten Son of God assumed His flesh from His virgin mother. I will not quibble over her being holy, all-holy, or otherwise; suffice it to say that she who was chosen to bear the Son of God is blessed amongst women.

light of my darkened soul, my hope, my shelter, my refuge, my consolation and my joy:
Honestly, that this could be said of anyone other than Jesus the Christ is approaching idolatry.

I thank thee that thou hast accounted me worthy, though unworthy, to be partaker of the immaculate Body and precious Blood of thy Son.
Where, pray tell, does Scripture anywhere suggest anything of the sort that Mary counts men worthy to partake of Jesus’ body and blood?

But do thou, who gavest birth to the true Light, enlighten the mental eyes of my heart;
That Mary indeed gave birth to the Light of the world Jesus is surely confessed by all the faithful. That Mary somehow enlightens the soul, creates or enflames faith is surely indefensible.

O thou who didst bear the fountain of immortality, quicken me who lie dead in sin.
Again the first half of the couplet is orthodox while the second is indefensible.

O compassion-loving Mother of the merciful God, have mercy upon me and grant me humility and contrition of heart, and meekness in my thoughts, and deliverance from the bondage of my vain imaginings.
The compassion of the Mother of God is without question. That she indeed prays for the Church is without question. That we should pray to her is murky at best. But that she has the ability to dispense the gifts of mercy, humility, contrition, meekness, even deliverance is once again indefensible and approaching idolatrous.

And account me worthy, even unto my last breath, to receive without condemnation the sanctification of the immaculate Mysteries, unto the healing of both soul and body. And grant unto me tears of repentance and of confession, that I may hymn thee and glorify thee all the days of my life: for blessed and glorified art thou unto all ages. Amen.
Jesus alone is the Judge who counts men worthy or unworthy for God the Father has given Him His rule and throne. To ascribe such authority to Mary is idolatrous and blasphemous.

This prayer is ripe with mediatrix/coredemptrix language that by all rights must make “protestants” squirm, yea flee as from a poisonous serpent.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Ah, Fr. Jon, one prayer at a time. As I noted, I intend this to be a series. I will comment on the prayer that Fr. Weedon posted (as Reader Christopher already has, most eloquently). But first I am covering this brief, and no less misunderstood, prayer. Please be patient. Thank you!

Fr. Jon M. Ellingworth said...

My apologies for jumping ahead of things. I saw the reference to Weedon's prayer post but overlooked your intention to address a series of prayers.

I do indeed hope that you will specifically address some of the points I have raised in regard to the post-communion prayer to the Theotokos.

I read Mr. Orr's post. It is indeed eloquent as one would expect from he of the "golden words". But Chris sidesteps the issues that concern "protestants" (you know I do not claim that name for myself) the most in such prayers.

123 said...

What issues did I sidestep? I'd love to hear what other points resonate negatively in that prayer. I've haven't been Protestant in so long that I sometimes forget what issues cause dissonance and 'offense'. Like how I once thought girls were icky.:)

Unknown said...

BTW, there is also a prayer in Orthodoxy where John the Bapist is asked to "save us," so this prayer is not unique to Mary and Christ.

If we think in Aristotelian terms, I've always found it funny that many in the West have no problem calling Christ the secondary cause of the Holy Spirit (filioque), and yet, when Mary, as the secondary cause of our salvation, is mentioned, cries of heresy abound. Irenaeus clearly holds Mary as being intrinsically involved in our salvation (particularly, she undoes the curse of Eve as the second Eve). Where in the pre-Nicenes is Christ as secondary cause of the Holy Spirit? Since when is secondary cause in the Trinity LESS heresy than secondary cause in the economy of our salvation? The scriptures have no problem viewing the preaching of the apostles as a secondary cause (Rom 10:14-15, 1 Cor 15:1-2, etc). How much more of a secondary cause is the taking of the flesh from the Virgin or the Baptism of Christ by John?

My language here is a bit strong to sharpen the point, but know that I mean it in the greatest respect to those who would seek to see God honoured above all idols. We would all agree that we ought never "send up glory" to Mary or translate John 3:16 to read "For Mary so loved the world..."

It should also be mentioned that the objections to this language is largely fuelled in protestantism by polemics against the latin "merits" system. Since this system is foreign to Orthodoxy, we certainly mean "save us" in a different sense.

123 said...

Of course, there is also a point that is clear in Greek, but obscured in English that there is a difference between doulia (to the saints), hyperdoulia (to Our Lady) and latreia (to God only). These are quite different words. Various translations over the years have tried to hammer out an English vocabulary that maintains these distinction, but to little avail. I guess it is to be expected since most of the history of the English language has occurred post-Reformation within Reformation categories and paradigms.

Is there a difference in terms used for 'salvation' in Greek or Latin? Or, as in English, can save mean everything from save money, to save time, to save one from drowning, saved from an unjust (or just) judgment, to eternal salvation of the body and/or soul? Perhaps 'save' has been too specifically defined as pertaining only to 'eternal salvation of the body and/or soul' in a way not in accordance with the Bible, the Fathers and their languages.

In the context of Orthodox worship it is very clear - at least it was to me - that Mary is not assumed to have any sort of power apart from her Son, our shared God. When she is given hyperdoulia, the action taken is to make the sign of the Cross of Her Son and our common God and then we make a prostration, a bow, venerate her icon, etc. Almost all icons of the Mother of God portray her with her Son - she points to Him, she kisses Him, He is in a 'pendant' signifying He is in Her womb, she is surrounded by the prophets that prophesied the coming Messiah ('of the Sign', Kursk Root), and he is often pictured at the top of an icon, in heaven receiving the prayer she is offering to Him on our behalf. There is no Burning Bush unconsumed with only a bush and without the Fire (which is understood to be the pre-Incarnate Christ Himself with the bush prophesying the Theotokos who was able to contain the uncontainable). Without the context of worship it is easy to simply assume the Orthodox are giving lip service, but these venerable, unchanging traditions prove the 'argument' better than any series of propositions and proofs.

123 said...

Fr. Jon,

I wonder if you have never been the 'light of [a parishioner's] darkened soul', their 'hope', have you never been 'shelter', 'refuge', 'consolation' or 'joy' to anyone? Poetry, Father, language must not always be literal - God is not obtuse and neither are we unwashed masses. Have you never counted anyone worthy to 'worthy to partake of Jesus’ body and blood'? Have you never communed anyone? If so, surely your prayers and preaching have had some effect on them such that they could be counted worthy - were you nothing in the process of prayer and preaching, a mere amanuensis? Does prayer and preaching do anything at all or is it just God, all on His own? I should hope that you and the pastors that inspired you to become a minister 'enlightened' your soul, and 'created and enflamed faith' in you - I would hope your ministry has not been so barren that you have not done the same for others. If you and they have, then I am sure that all involved understood who was God and who was the pastor, who the Creator and who the created. I assume that you also have 'quickened', brought back to life, those that had been dead in sin, unless your ministry has been a waste. Surely you and those quickened understood that while it was you who brought them to faith, it was also only because God worked in and through all involved - just like when I type this comment, with God's 'help'. I would bet that your mother or other kind people dispensed and taughtyou "the gifts of mercy, humility, contrition, meekness, even deliverance" from sin by cultivating in you faith in Christ, correcting you, guiding you, praying for you. Finally, you as Pastor regularly account (judge) some as worthy and some as unworthy to receive the Sacrament and this is a very different thing than whether the Father has given His Son His rule and throne - just as that is not what is being discussed in this prayer.

The Theotokos 'saves' and 'redeems' us due to her assent at the conception of the God-man, and due to the power of her prayers which must be heard and honored if Jesus is to obey the 4th Commandment and remain sinless. Even if this were not the case, however, the prayer of a righteous man (woman) availeth much to win the Master's favor. Prayer is efficacious. Unless prayer is to be reserved for things of lesser import, than I can't imagine why someone whose prayers (note, not inherent, innate power apart from God) are powerful should not pray for our salvation and redemption and be given some acknowledgment for being part of that process in a person's life. Do you not believe you 'save' and 'redeem' a person when you baptize and commune them? Or, is it God who baptizes and communes them directly with no need of fleshly, material help? What you are describing is ecclesiastical Zwinglianism where you are simply providing a symbol of something God is doing or has already done totally apart from you.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Is this that "Same Root Error" again?


Fr. Jon M. Ellingworth said...

Christopher, I have replied to "What issues did I sidestep?" on your own blog.

Fr. Jon M. Ellingworth said...

Christopher, I believe that you know better than this, but as a Lutheran pastor I am certain that "I" have never baptized anyone or saved anyone. I confess that my hands and voice are indeed used, but it is Christ who baptizes and it is Christ who saves. "He who hears you hears Me". Concerning the prayers to saints -- now you have explained yourself more fully and richly. Thank you. Of course I do not agree, but you have honestly answered many of the points I raised. After having this discussion (which I've had many times with many people of many different confessions) I always seem to walk away with this: Even if it were not necessarily wrong to pray to saints and petition them for gifts of various sorts, would it be prudent to do so when we have full access to the Father through Jesus Christ who is the one proclaimed intercessor between God and man? It always comes back to soli Deo gloria --- Even Jesus' atoning death and resurrection were to the glory of God the Father.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Fr. Jon, you posed this question:

"Even if it were not necessarily wrong to pray to saints and petition them for gifts of various sorts, would it be prudent to do so when we have full access to the Father through Jesus Christ who is the one proclaimed intercessor between God and man?"

Me: To argue that because we have full access to the Father through Christ the one proclaimed intercessor, therefore we need not invoke the saints, is to argue not simply against the invocation of the saints, but against all intercessory prayer. Why should I ask you to pray for me, since I am perfectly capable of praying for myself, and even without you I have full access to the Father?

No further argument for intercessory prayer (both by those in this life and by those departed this life) is needed than our common love and common life. I love you, therefore I pray for you and ask you to pray for me, and vice-versa.

According to St. Paul, we are members of the body of Christ. Now the only members attached directly to the head are the eyes, ears, nose and mouth (not counting hair here, since I've got none on top). The rest of the body's members are joined to the head in an order and unity with each other.

In other words, the intercession of the saints fits better with the description of the Church as the body of Christ.

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory

Dn. Lucas said...

James 16b also supports the asking for intercession:

"The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much."

If this is true, then there must be something to asking for the intercessions of others, especially the 'righteous man;' the example given following being Elias (Elijah).

Dn. Lucas said...

Oops, that should read "James 5:16b"

Lutheran Lucciola said...

I would like to ask the Orthodox to lighten up a bit on the Lutheran blogs. I'm a Lutheran convert, and would love to read every now and then some theological discussions between everyone, but can you all try to be a bit more civil?

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Dear Lutheran Lucciola,

Welcome to my blog. I sympathize with your desire for civility on blogs. In my own posts on Lutheran blogs and on my own, I always strive to focus on issues, not personalities. I find nothing wrong with vigorous discussion--the truth is strong, and can take it--but I try my best to avoid arguments directed at the person (ad hominems), despite being the target of many such attacks. Like Anastasia (http://anastasias-corner.blogspot.com/), I welcome any and all to comment on my blog, and say whatever they want, as long as it's directed to the issue and not the person. If in scanning my posts here or elsewhere you find something directed at persons instead of issues, I invite you to let me know, so that I may ask forgiveness.

Again, thanks for visiting!

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

I've been told, by Lutherans, that they *do* believe in theosis. They tell me Martin Luther even wrote about it.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Did the pope consider Luther to be a sheep-stealer?

123 said...

But the pope is Antichrist so it doens't matter what he thought; it's only sheep-stealing if you are 'Right' and the 'sheep-stealer' is 'Wrong'.

Some Finnish theologians have been making a case over the past years that Luther taught a version of theosis. Some Lutherans buy it, many don't. There is overlap - after all, we are all looking at the same person, Jesus Christ, and hold many of the same documents and saints in high regard - but I personally think it is an ecumenical stretch to try and get Luther to teach theosis as that term is understood within the context of the Eastern Fathers of the Church and Eastern Orthodoxy today.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

That would explain the difficulties people have with "praying" to saints, then (probably an unfortunate word for it). If they don't believe God deifies His saints, I mean.

But of course that would mean they don't believe in salvation, either, as we Orthodox understand it.

Anonymous said...

A bit late to the party, but I have been going to an EO for several years now and still cringe at those words to the Theotokos. I do believe there is too much emphasis on what she [might] be able to do. We have no scriptural precedent and I can't shake that thought. Shouldn't Jesus be enough? There are so many things I love about the EO. I had hoped, in time, I could reconcile a few issues, but I cannot.

123 said...

Sorry you still cringe. As I have reflected on this prayer more and more over the past 8+ years, I have realized that we attribute to people around us in everyday life abilities that are really only God-given. My wife did not drive to the restaurant last night, it was God Who gave her the strength, ability, health, care and safety here in the US to be able to drive there. Same with my graduation from college - it was God working in me and it would be the height of works righteousness and Pelagianism for me to attribute such ability to myself alone.

All I am saying is that if we believe that prayer can DO things, then the person praying is doing that 'thing'. If St. Paul says that a believing spouse can SAVE an unbelieving spouse, then I think we can attribute to God's mom the ability to pray (literally, "ask") her Son be obedient to her and fulfill her request (as a good son must if He is to remain sinless by following the 4th Commandment). Any other allergy to the semantics is, I think, just that - semantics and allergies, a preference for 'my' way of speaking. It is real, mind you; that fear/allergy is deeply engrained in Protestants. The question is whether our own preferences and inclinations trump God, the lex orandi of the Church, etc. I'm sure inquiring Muslims prefer that Jesus not be referred to as God and inquiring Jehovah's Witnesses stumble on the divinity of the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of the Trinity. We all have orientations and feelings different from that of God and His Church, but that is the point of repentance and the Church - to refashion and recreate us into the full human beings we were always meant to be. Even Christ's scars from the Crucifixion remained after his Resurrection; so, too, will our scars from our pre-Orthodox lives. But, both his scars and ours will be transfigured, changed.

Have you tried praying to the Mother of God regularly for her help in understanding her place in the Church? My spiritual father had me prayer the Small Paraklesis every Wednesday while I was an inquirer and catechumen. It (she) helped my understanding.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Dear Caldonia Sun,

When I saw your comment I took a look at your blog. I am envious. Very envious. What a beautiful spot God has given you to live in!

You ask, "Shouldn't Jesus be enough?" The answer is, "Of course--he is enough!"

But what Jesus are we talking about? The "Jesus and me" of so much contemporary Christianity? Or the Jesus of the Scriptures--born of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by apostles, martyrs and a throng of saints worshiping and praising him?

He is the Head--but he also has a Body, a living body, composed of all those believing in him now and over the past 2,000 years. And his holy apostle James commands us to pray for one another...yes, even those who have departed and are with him. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.

If it is right for Christians to ask each others' prayers, it is certainly right to ask the prayers of his Mother and the saints. If it is not proper to ask the prayers of his Mother and the saints, then it is not proper to ask other Christians to pray for us.

Remember me in your prayers, dear sister in Christ.

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory