01 August 2008

"Most holy Theotokos, save us!" (Part 3)

So far we've seen that Mary is rightly addressed as "Most holy Theotokos"--Theotokos, because she gave birth to God, and "most holy" because God shared his holiness and his glory first and foremost with her, and because she alone contained within her womb the God whom the heavens cannot contain. If the most holy place of the Temple was called "the Holy of Holies" because the Ark of the Covenant rested in it, how much more can she be called "Most holy," since her womb contained the God who made that covenant!

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.

Biblically, salvation:

> 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 Theotokos
This 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)
Verb: "save"
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)
Subject: "baptism"
Verb: "saves"
Object: "you."

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!"


Fr. Jon M. Ellingworth said...

My goodness, what glorious obfuscation! I pray (request) that all Orthodox laity (yea, clergy) understand what prayer is.

Indeed, though prayer has proven a slippery thing to pin down, it seems, nevertheless, that most Christians think that they know how to pray and that they know a proper prayer when they hear one.

I know of no biblical accounts of any living (naturally-speaking) person praying to someone in heaven -- there is the rich man in hell who petitions father Abraham in heaven, but that's a slightly different matter.

Prayer is certainly more than "talking to God"; after all, a great deal of prayer is done silently. Paul instructs us to "pray without ceasing" - now that's a tall order. Given the example of the Lord's prayer and the Psalter, and the example of penitent sinners who's only prayer is "Kyrie eleison", I've come to think of prayer in relational terms, as a realigning of one's self with God, recognizing God to be God and you His beloved. The entirety of a Christian's life is to be a prayer to God.

Is prayer really as complicated as your three articles suggest? Must we delve into metaphysics and linguistic twister to achieve the desired answer?

Is God less glorified if I pray ONLY to Him (Father, Son, Holy Spirit)? I'm only seeking to do His will and give Him the greatest glory.

Does Mary, Peter, Paul, or any of the heavenly host care if I do not pray to them, but to God only? Am I robbing them of some glory they deserve? I honor and revere them, their faith serving as a powerful and encouraging example for me. They represent God's promise fulfilled, kept.

Honestly, I'm not an idiot. I can grasp the subtle points you are trying to make. But is it ever painful to do so! Further, despite understanding, it disturbs my conscience, not unlike rubbing a cats coat in the wrong direction. It is not comfortable, and not because I do not like it (indeed, I think my flesh very much would like to pray to people like me, thereby making myself feel more deserving and worthy), but because it just feels wrong.

And, of course, it goes against the plain teaching of the Holy Scripture. Yes, I know you don't hold Scripture above the teaching of the Church the way I do, but can the teaching of the Church ever flat out contradict the teachings of Scripture?

What does Paul mean when he says that there is "one mediator between God and man"?

I've used the word "side-stepping" a couple of times now and have tried to be charitable and have rescinded that accusation. But I think the reason that I am compelled to use that term is that I feel that the answer to questions about prayers to saints should be simple -- it's either right or wrong, and here's why. God is mysterious, to be sure, but I don't believe that He's out to confuse us, or to reveal His will to us in such high and complicated ways as to keep some, perhaps many, from knowing Him and His will.

I don't mean this as an ad hominem attack, but such complicated argumentation impresses the flesh which is ready to say "Ooh, wow! That's really something! That just has to be true!" While the reality is that the truth has been circumvented, excised, substituted with a load of malarkey.

Man, I want to pray for salvation right now! For strength of faith, for perseverance! I'd feel short-changed to request it from anyone else than the one man I KNOW can deliver.

Fr. Jon M. Ellingworth said...

I just stumbled across this in another post, but how true it is:

"True theology is rather simple, for it proceeds from Truth. Always and ever from Truth. Heresy is complex, for it is the subtle mixture of Truth and error, and as in mathematics even the subtlest error must result in an errant sum, so also in theology." - Anonymous

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Dear Fr. Jon,

Allow me to comment on your posts here in outline, rather than my accustomed detail. I am preparing for a long drive home from Montreal to be at liturgy tomorrow morning.

1. You note that you know of no biblical accounts of any living (naturally-speaking) person praying to someone in heaven.

a) Consider how this sort of argument--"The bible doesn't offer any accounts of x"--is biting confessional Lutherans on the backside. The Bible doesn't say what to do with the reliquae. The Bible doesn't say that you have to worship liturgically. The Bible doesn't say you have to have a cross in church, etc. etc.

b)How the Bible functions in theology is one of the fundamental distinctions between the Church and the Lutheran confession. The Bible functions in the Church, not over-against the Church. The Bible itself says that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. Review the history of the Church, and you will find that the intercession of the saints was practiced everywhere, by everybody, as far back as documentary evidence will show (including 2nd-century graffiti in Roman catacombs and Peter's house in Capernaum). The burden of proof falls on those who claim that this is an innovation to show that it is, and to show that nonetheless the gates of hell did not prevail against the church despite its adopting such an 'idolatrous' practice. For my part, I am content to practice what the Church has always practiced. I'm not here to fix the Church; the Church is here to fix me.

2) The rest of your post seems to be an argument that because what I've written isn't simple, it isn't right. In large part, to the degree that what I've written is complex, it's because I'm trying to interpret the Orthodox mind to western ears--to build "thought bridges" so that one can translate between the traditions. Interpreting is never easy (ask President Kennedy, who wanted to say, "I am a Berliner," but used a word that made his remark, "I am a jelly donut."). It requires fluency in both languages.

3) You ask if Mary, Peter et al. care if you don't ask their intercessions. Do you care if your people don't ask you to pray for them?

4) Finally (dang, this is becoming point-by-point, isn't it?), you claim that the intercession of the saints goes against the biblical teaching that there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.

When we ask the intercession of the saints, we ask precisely as they are in Christ Jesus, members of the Head. Our Christ has a body. He's not a body-less head. And as head, he works in and through his members to accomplish his work.

Remember, too, that in Orthodoxy we do not have the western notion of merit, which is so key to the Roman understanding of intercession of the saints, and so opposed by the Reformation criticisms of the practice.

Hope this helps a little...

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory Hogg

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

zpj. it really isn't complicated at all, much less is it any obfuscation. Come on. Maybe it seems that way as Fr. Gregory is wearing his professorial hat. But it's as simple as understanding the words "pray" and "save." To pray is simply to ask. To ask anybody anything. "Save," in the New Testament, is used in ways you'd think Lutheran might find blasphemous. St. Paul being all things to all people, so that he might "save some". a wife "saving" her husband. A woman being saved by childbirth. And so forth.

There is only One Mediator between God and man; only one who bore both natures in one Person, only One who offered God the perfect sacrifice of perfect faith, love, and obedience on our behalf, only One who mediates God's forgiveness to us. But as far as intercessors go, there are as many intercessors as there are Christians.

And who were those two dead saints with whom Christ held converse upon Mt. Tabor? Moses and Elijah, yes? Together with Him, IN Him, as members OF Him, we do the same.

Andrew said...

Regarding the scriptural injunction for practices such as these, I would note (I'm basically stealing and tweaking Calvin's argument, but hey, I think it's a good one) that there is no command/promise in the scriptures to commune women, nor are there any examples given of women communing. Any scriptural argument for the practice is based on what passages may implicity teach, not on what they explicitly teach. You'd argue for the practice both from a logical chain of biblical premises and from tradition, much like what Fr Hogg and others are doing here with this issue.

Fr Hogg, have you picked up Farrell yet? ;)

Back to lurking...

Andrew said...

One more thing (I guess I'm not a very good lurker!); a little anecdotal evidence which, granted, probably won't count for much for those predisposed to look unfavorably on the practice: I asked St John of San Fransisco for guidance in my life regarding some things that are troubling me as I drove up this weekend both to where his relics are preserved incorrupt in the Russian cathedral in San Fran and to the OCA monastery under his patronage in Northern California. I won't bore you with all the details, but my prayers were answered, and unmistakably, I might add.

It reminds me of Hamlet's oft quoted statement: 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy'.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Gregory,

Thank you for the clear and compelling thinking and writing on this subject. I get it! Your writing is lucid, clear, and catholic. I get it, and I am not even a smart person. I feel some sadness for Fr. Jon and his difficulty in coming to grips with this? ... What part about this is so hard to grasp?

Christians are saints. Saints fall asleep in the Lord. Saints are alive not dead - even now in the presence of the Lord. Saints love the Church. Thus they love us. We need prayer. They love to pray. We ask friends on earth for prayer, and so, why would we not ask the living saints in paradise for prayer as well?

Bottom line Fr. Jon, in all humility and respect for your office: We agree, there is only one MEDIATOR between God and us - and it is the person of Jesus Christ.

But there are many, many, intercessors for us... "angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven..." who do not mediate for us - but pray for us and with us- and carry our prayers to Christ - just like you do for the flock that you shepherd.

I get it. Our kids get it. Why is it so hard to admit that we need prayer, both the prayers of those alive in Christ here on earth, and those alive in Christ in the heavens?

Ask and you shall receive. Let go of Western scholasticism & reason and adopt the heart and faith of a child.

PS For one reference to a person praying for the saints on earth while existing as a saint in heaven check out 2 Maccabees 15:14

"...this is Jeremiah, the prophet of God, a man who loves his brothers and prays fervently for the people and the holy city..."

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...


Thanks for your comment.


I'm afraid I am drowning in things to do. And probably will be. For some time to come. Pray for me!

Fr. Gregory

Acolyte4236 said...

As an aside, it depends on which bible when we say that the bible doesn't contain any instances of people invoking saints. If I am not mistaken, there are passages in the Apocrypha where this takes place. This was one of the reasons why the Reformers rejected those books. So the problem is that the Orthodox just have a different Bible from the Lutherans.

Acolyte4236 said...

Fr. Gregory,

The material you are citing from, where is it from? Is this a book or booklet or something on the net?

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Based on a quick scan, the material is all my own (except for Scripture references, and a citation from the Akathist hymn).

I've not forgotten the need to comment on other prayers, btw--I'm just a bit short on time right now...

Unknown said...

Hello there and God Bless,
I am very sorry to bother you but I appreciate you taking the time to read my note. My name is Robert Anther and I am a Christian School Student from Traverse City Michigan. A few weeks ago I attended the Traverse City Film Festival, and went to see a movie called RELIGULOUS because I was told the film was about a man's personal spiritual journey. I was interested in the story as I myself am on a spiritual journey. One that brings me hope, happiness, and a greater understanding of who I am and my ultimate purpose here on Earth. I was misled by my peers as this film disrespects everything that I and my family stand for and holds TRUE as a follower of Jesus Christ. I was not aware of Bill Maher prior to seeing this movie. I am disgusted at the premise of this movie that Religion, and Jesus Christ our Savior is a con artist and those who have chosen Jesus Christ as their saviour are mentally retarded! Is there no limit to what can be said in theaters in the presence of children? I bring this to your attention because I am traveling to Toronto with a group of friends and fellow followers for Jesus Christ to protest this movie. We hope to bring awareness to the true God hating nature of this film. Your local festival website says the film will be playing Saturday night at 9 PM. Please join us in singing hymns, lighting candles, and praying for the souls of those involved in making this movie. Jesus would have commanded me to love his enemies, which is why we are traveling so far to pray for them, and to warn others of this hateful film. Please join us.
God Bless you and your congregation
May your days be filled with His light.

Robert Anther
Honor, MI

Erik said...

I see that this is an old post, but it is always relevant to dialogue and clarify information and ideas.

I just want to clarify that Lutherans (I am one) do teach and believe that the Saints and all the company of Heaven do actively intercede for us. We also thank God through Christ for their gracious example insofar as it reflects His Grace and Love for us and exemplifies that which we may still aspire to in our earthly human existence. We pray that He will hear all of our prayers and that all prayers will glorify Him.

We stop short of petitioning individual Saints to interceed on our behalf. As Fr. Jon pointed out there are no canonical examples to be found. And though deuterocanonical (apochrophal) examples may exist, we do not hold these books to be divinely inspired nor inerrant. (My understanding is that the Orthodox stance is that they are part of the official Cannon, but are of secondary Authority.) There is no point in scripture that shows that the Saints can hear us. If they can hear us, then perhaps they too can and do join us, thereby amplifying our prayers to the only intercessor. I can think of no better way to communicate with a Saint or to venerate them than by thanking Christ for the example that they set for us.

My last point is that prayer does not change God's will. It brings our will into closer alignment to His. He sets the course and provides for all that is necessary to accomplish His will. I can only pray that He will subdue the evil in me and use me in some small way to aid Him in His work.

Our Faith begins with Him alone and ends in Him alone. His sacrifice on the cross, the seal of His baptism into salvation, and His Holy Supper to sustain me through this life provide me with the assurance of my salvation. Through these things He provides me with the Grace filled strength to remain in Him until He takes me home to be with Him.

To God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be the glory, honor and praise. Now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen!


Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Dear Erik,

I responded to Fr. Jon's post just after he wrote it; I would refer you to that response and welcome your rejoinder.