I recently ran into this discussion over at an interesting blog. She called it the “scary Mary prayer” and apparently it is the one that says, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us.”
The comments were interesting, but I wanted to add to them. Pretty soon my comment got too long so I’ve decided to post on my own venue.
First of all, I had a similar crisis to this in Bible College when I realized that the scriptures – yes, the Bible – speak of things and people as saving folks. In other words, it’s not just the Orthodox Church that talks like this. The scriptures also use the terminology in this way.
At that time I did a survey through all the books of the Bible, trying to find out how many different ways the words “save” and “salvation” are used. As it turns out this term is not even remotely limited, in scripture, to that special moment when (as Evangelicals imagine it works) Jesus takes up lodging in your heart, the Holy Spirit enters your body, God the Father voluntarily closes his eyes to your sinfulness (in return for being sated by Jesus’ blood) and a spot in heaven is claimed in your name (paid for by the coin of the immeasurable merit of Jesus’ righteous earthly life.)
Sometimes converts to the Orthodox Church exchange this description of how salvation works for a more mature, less pagan view, (the correct, or Orthodox one) but the word ‘salvation,’ for them, remains saturated with that hazy “I’m on my way to Heaven” idea. Worse, the conscience of the convert is still bound by a perception that salvation is a sort of secondary attribute of God – one which, unlike goodness, holiness, justice, faithfulness, or miraculous powers, he cannot share with his creatures without deifying them to a degree which threatens his own uniqueness as God.
Of course, this is all a lot of illogical and irreverent, not to mention theologically impoverished, balderdash.
Part of converting to the Orthodox way is beginning to understand that what you thought was worship of God before, was merely veneration of God. That’s why you were afraid to venerate saints – what would you then have left to offer God alone? In the Orthodox Church, true and genuine adoration and worship of God is preserved. It was established by Christ, through his apostles, and has been handed down to all of us. We are not afraid to give to saints what we used to give to Christ because we have something better to give to Him now. (In truth, even the veneration of God in most churches is so self-willed and un-chaste that we should shudder to offer it to any holy person.)
God’s, well, Godhood – his essence – is such that it remains absolutely inviolate, secret, and unique regardless of how much he shares his attributes (or to use the more accurate, Orthodox word,) energies (or again, to use the more poetic term, with which the scriptures are replete) fullness – with us.
He can even make us little saviors. Or, to take a more global view – he can use us as little saviors.
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
22 And have mercy on some, who are doubting; 23 save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.
In other words, we ask the Theotokos to do for us no more than the scriptures instruct us to do for one another. Presumably, she does it better.
In the scriptures, salvation means:
1. God’s act of rescuing anyone from death or from anything that partakes of or leads to death.
2. People’s experience of being saved from any of that.
3. The quality of God as someone whom to know is to experience salvation (God is my light and my salvation)
4. The act of any person in rescuing anyone from death or from anything that partakes of or leads to death.
5. The experience of being saved, by anyone, from anything.
6. The quality of any person by which they become the indispensable means of another person’s salvation.
This last, number 6, can be illustrated by a commonplace. Let’s say you are drowning and someone throws you a lifesaver on a rope and hauls you in, then gives you mouth-to-mouth, and calls 911 and delivers you into the care of those whose job it is to restore you to full health. Let’s say, since we have a good samaritan, that he even pays for the health care.
That man is your savior. I suppose you won’t put anything or anyone else in his category. Nevertheless you might say that you were saved by a rope or that a lifesaver or cell phone was your salvation, or thank his parents for getting him swimming and lifesaving lessons.
You would not, of course, kiss the rope or the cell phone unless you were being really dramatic. (You might hang his picture up somewhere.) But you might compliment his parents on their excellent son, or thank the paramedics for responding to his call and being there with the training and the commitment to help you. Why? Because inanimate objects are created to be used, but when persons with consciousness, intelligence, will, and personhood allow themselves to be the means of someone else’s salvation, it is an act worthy of honor. God honors this act.
BJohnD, a commenter on This Side of Glory, asks the following question.
This and some of the language from the other prayers throws me, because it sounds like you’re saying that the Theotokos is our salvation.
I would point out that our prayers do a lot more than that. They ask her to save us, making her a savior and not just salvation. It would be a small thing to say that the Theotokos is our salvation. She is, in fact, the indispensable means of God’s salvation of the human race. There’s no getting around it by saying that God could make himself human without Mary’s help. In such a case, he might be human, but he wouldn’t be in our family. We wouldn’t be bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood. The whole story of the Old Testament is about how God created a community that would produce a woman who could share her pure flesh with Him. Had she been unwilling or committed any transgression God could not have used her in this way.
In fact, it would have been much “easier” for God to accomplish salvation from sin and death without anyone’s cooperation or help. That he does it with the cooperation and help and effort of all of us is to the glory of his grace. This is, we may be sure, a better salvation than would have been accomplished without the Theotokos.
She is our salvation.
What, then, is the distinction between Mary and God? Much more than we could possibly imagine, since we can’t grasp the divine essence and none of us, not even the Theotokos, shares it. However, I will describe one key difference that helps me to think about this question.
In the case of God, he is our salvation independently of anything or anyone other than his own absolutely independent being. In the case of Mary or any of us, she is our salvation only insofar as she unites herself to God and becomes a partaker of his nature. We honor her because she not only united herself to him in an extraordinary degree through faith and the pursuit of the Lord’s will, but also because she is the prototype of everyone who bears Christ within them. Christ’s flesh is her flesh. God’s holiness is her holiness.
In essence, if we believe that God’s salvation accomplishes the miraculous, then Mary, the Theotokos, is what that miracle looks like in the highest degree. We cannot begin to fathom it. It would be ungallant at best and blasphemous at worst not to sing about it on a regular basis. Why blasphemous? Because God’s vessel is holy. Why else do we have all these descriptions about the tabernacle and the vessels of the temple in the books of the Law?
However, there’s something else that people forget to mention in discussions like these. So often in Orthodox life, the Theotokos is called upon as the defender of cities and homes. It may be that “Theotokos, save us,” means, “rescue us from disease, horror, war, famine, and other losses.” It goes without saying the she does this through her prayers, but what is prayer when the mother of God does it? Surely it’s more than just repetitively asking him to do this and do that.
I recall the story about Mt. Athos, in which the Theotokos asks the Lord to give this spot to her as her garden. Does this mean that the fruits of Athos are due to her loving attention and care? Did she build it, with its communities? Is she laboring over it still? Do our ideas of prayer remotely resemble this kind of nurture?
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”
It’s unimaginable to think of the saints in heaven as inactive, more or less the waking dead, just sitting there pleading with God for this and that. Surely there is a profound, purposeful activity going on, one that we should attract to ourselves and our needs, and try to begin engaging in with them.
And yes – Most Holy Theotokos, save even us. From death, from needless horror, from godlessness and from being castaways.