Orthodox-Reformed Bridge

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An Early Christian Prayer to Mary

 

Rylands Papyrus 470

Many Reformed Christians like Orthodox Christians hold the Virgin Mary in high regard.  That many Reformed Christians are even willing to call her “Theotokos” is not surprising in light of the fact that the Reformed tradition accepts the first four Ecumenical Councils: Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and (Chalcedon 451) (See the Second Helvetic Confession Chapter 11).  It was at the Third Ecumenical Council (431) that Mary’s title as the “Theotokos” was formally affirmed to be a dogma of the Church: “If any one refuses to confess that the Emmanuel is in truth God, and therefore that the holy Virgin is Mother of God (θεοτόκος), for she gave birth after a fleshly manner to the Word of God made flesh; let him be anathema.” (See NPNF Series 2 Vol. XIV p. 206)  Recently, some Reformed groups are rediscovering the early Church and selectively including more and more early Church practices in their Sunday worship.

 

Where they differ from the Orthodox Church is over the propriety of addressing one’s prayers to Mary.  Being guided by the principle of Solus Christus – that salvation is through Christ alone and that Christ is the sole mediator between man and God, Protestantism frowns on Christians praying to the Virgin Mary or the saints.  They confuse Mary’s role as a chief intercessor by mistakenly thinking our Blessed Theotokos to be a deity! Sadly, many Protestants wrongly believe with little evidence and even less serious study that Christianity became corrupted and encrusted by non-biblical beliefs around the time of Emperor Constantine in the early 300s, if not earlier.  However, this hypothesis has been discredited by the growing evidence that early Christians prayed to the Virgin Mary prior to Constantine.  Papyrus 470 which dates back to 250 can thus be considered an example of a very early extra-biblical tradition.

In 1917, the John Rylands Library acquired a collection of papyri.  Many Protestant pastors who took New Testament Greek and exegesis are likely to have heard in passing Rylands Papyrus P52 dating as early as 117 to 138 and considered to be the oldest extant record of the canonical New Testament.  During this early period were other early Christian writings like the Didache, Clement’s first Epistle to the Corinthians, and Ignatius of Antioch’s letters.  It is important to keep in mind that many if not most of the first generation of the Apostles’ disciples were still alive and leading the Church during the time of these early writings.  These disciples of the Apostles devoted themselves to preserving and passing on the Apostles’ teachings.  As we have noted several times before, the Protestant notion of the Holy Spirit “Blinking-Off” in the Church soon after the Apostles died then “Blinking On” with the Reformation is problematic both historically and theologically.  Orthodoxy rejects this Protestant approach to history and upholds Pentecost as a continuous ongoing reality, that is, the Holy Spirit was present in the early Church teaching and guiding the Church into all Truth, as Christ promised (John 16:13.  The Rylands collection contains P470 which contains a prayer to the Virgin Mary dating as early as 250.  The date 250 is significant in light of the fact this was the time of the Decian Persecution and thus predates Constantine’s Edict of Milan issued in 313.  This early prayer to Mary arose from the vibrant spirituality of the early Church.

 

An Ancient Christian Prayer

Papyrus 470 predates the Council of Ephesus (431) by two centuries.  This is the Third Ecumenical Council that was convened for the purpose of addressing the Nestorian controversy – Nestorius’ refusal to address Mary as “Theotokos” in the Liturgy.  In other words a high view of Mary was held by Christians early on and was not the result of late development of tradition as some might claim but rooted in an ancient Christian tradition.  Furthermore, the term “Theotokos” was not coined at the Council of Ephesus but was already in use for some time by early Christians.

As we read the text of this short prayer – 22 words in the original Greek – we find a number of significant ideas.  One aspect is the titles given to Mary:

  • “Theotokos” – the prayer addresses Mary not on a first name basis but by the formal title “Theotokos,”
  • “Only blessed” – a reference to Mary’s special election by God, and
  • “Only pure” – a reference to Mary’s perpetual virginity.

Screen shot 2015-05-02 at 2.08.42 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was not an individual prayer but a corporate prayer – the early Christians prayed to Mary in their Sunday worship!  This prayer was translated into Latin and in the Latin tradition came to be known as “Sub Tuum Praesidium.”  In the Orthodox tradition this prayer is sung during the Vespers service for Great Lent and is echoed in similar prayers in the daily prayers and the Sunday Liturgy.  This points to the universality of this ancient prayer.  In light of the Vincentian Canon – that which is believed everywhere, always, and by all — prayer to Mary the Theotokos is a catholic or universal Christian practice.

We learn from this papyrus that when early Christians gathered for worship they addressed Mary by the title “God Bearer” recognizing her role in the mystery of the Incarnation – Christ coming down from heaven and assuming human flesh for our salvation.   Further, we learn that early Christians believed in praying to the saints and asking the saints to pray on their behalf.  In contrast Mary is all but ignored in Protestant worship services today; she is never addressed as “Theotokos;” and she is not asked to pray for us.  It is as if Mary is taken out for display during Christmas and then the rest of the year is put away in a box until next year.  An early Christian visiting contemporary Protestant worship services would likely be disconcerted if not dismayed by how little attention Christ’s Mother is given by Protestants today.

 

Steps to Recovering Ancient Christian Worship

images-50As archaeological evidence Rylands Papyrus 470 suggests that Protestantism, especially the Reformed tradition and Evangelicalism, may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  Protestants can enrich their worship and devotional life by learning from the early Church by emulating their respect for Mary the Theotokos.  A good first step is to refer to Mary not just as “Mary” but also as “Theotokos” or in English “Mother of God” or “God Bearer.”

The occasion of Protestantism’s High Holy Day: “Mother’s Day” (May 10 in 2015) would be a good opportunity for Protestant pastors and their parishioners to call Mary by her proper title “Theotokos.”  Doing this on this upcoming Sunday morning would mark one positive step towards recovering historic Christian worship.  A good follow up would be to print this ancient prayer in the church bulletin and let people be free to use this prayer to the extent they feel comfortable using it.  Reformed and Evangelical Christians can ask Mary to be their prayer partner asking God’s blessing for their earthly mothers.

Another good follow-up would be to visit an Orthodox worship service to learn how they honor Mary the Theotokos in the ancient Liturgy that dates back to the early Church and how Mary sets an example of Christian discipleship through her total commitment to Jesus Christ.

A Mother’s Day Prayer

Beneath your compassion,

We take refuge, O Mother of God:

do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:

but rescue us from dangers

only pure, only blessed one.  [Source]

 

Robert Arakaki

Resources

Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth.  2010.  “The Christian Reformed – Who Are They?Ancient Faith Radio.

Robert Arakaki.  2012.  “Why Evangelicals Need Mary.”  OrthodoxBridge.

Robert Arakaki.  2011.  “Response to Brad Littlejohn’s: ‘Honouring Mary as Protestants.’OrthodoxBridge.

Henri De Villiers. 2011.  “The Sub Tuum PraesidiumNew Liturgical Movement.

John Rylands Papyrus.”  2007.  TheoblogoumenaA Blog of Theological Opinions.

YouTube Video – Greorian chant sung by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos – “Sub Tuum Praesidium”

YouTube Video – St Elias Church – “Forgiveness Vespers – Dismissal Hymn

 

The Light of the Resurrection Shines in the Darkness

 

Good News for all the world

Christos voskrese!  Voistinu voskrese!  — Christ is risen!  Truly He is risen!

 

There is a story told about Nikolai Bukharin, a Russian Communist leader who actively propagated the message of atheism.

One of the most powerful men in the world was Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, a Russian Communist leader, who took part in the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In 1930 he addressed a massive assembly of workers in Kiev on the subject of atheism. He aimed the heavy artillery of his arguments at Christianity by hurling insults and proof against it. He went on and on for an hour effectively crucifying and killing our faith. When he was done he looked out smugly upon what he thought was the smoldering ash heap of the crowd’s faith. His speech was followed by silence and he demanded, “Are there any questions?” As deafening silence filled the auditorium, for what seemed an eternity, a man approached the platform and the lectern standing near the powerful communist leader. He surveyed the crowd scanning the silent faces from left to right. Finally, he shouted the ancient greeting known so well in the Orthodox Church: “CHRIST IS RISEN!” En masse, the crowd rose to its feet and the response came crashing forth like the sound of thunder: “INDEED, HE IS RISEN.”  Source

Some question whether this event actually happened but it is a matter of record that during the Soviet era thousands of churches were destroyed and tens of thousands of priests and monks were imprisoned.  It is no small miracle that the Orthodox Church in Russia has survived, outlasted Communist rule, and is currently thriving.  It is a fulfillment of Christ’s promise to the Apostles: “On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18; OSB)  Let us remember that the power of Christ’s third day resurrection was more than a onetime event but continues to reverberate through human history.

Robert Arakaki

Cathedral of Christ the Savior - Symbol of New Russia  Source

Interesting story about the Cathedral of Christ the Savior – Symbol of New Russia Source

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell

 

Holy Saturday service - priest scattering flowers.

Holy Saturday – Priest scattering rose petals.  Article – The Baltimore Sun.  2013

During Holy Week each day has a particular theme, a spiritual lesson for the faithful who attend the services.  As an Orthodox Christian I get much of my theological education not from reading books but from attending the services.  In addition to the Scripture readings, the hymns and prayers of the Church teach me about how God saved us in Christ.  They form as it were a running commentary on the Bible, and for those diligent and attentive they offer a form of liturgical education and dicipleship training. Standing attentively with an open heart gives one a good spiritual workout!

Each day of Holy Week has a particular theme: Thursday – Christ’s death, Friday – his burial, Saturday morning – his descent into Hell, and Saturday midnight – his resurrection.  In my early days as an Orthodox Christian my focus was on the Pascha/Easter service that celebrates Christ’s third day resurrection.  Then I began to make it a point to attend the other services and found to my happy surprise that these services have their own special take on Jesus Christ and how Christ saves us.

Recently, I began attending the Holy Saturday morning Liturgy.  At first I thought to myself: “Why is there a morning Liturgy on the day of Christ’s resurrection when we are going to celebrate the Resurrection later that night?”  I soon learned that the theme of the Holy Saturday service is Christ’s time in Hell.  The Apostles’ Creed confesses: “And he descended into Hell” (descendit ad infernos). During my time as a Protestant Evangelical I thought that one line in the Apostles Creed was a curious aberration with little relevance for salvation.  This “curious aberration” turned out to be a hidden gem of the early Church.

 

Epitaphios - tapestry depicting Christ's burial

Epitaphios – tapestry depicting Christ’s burial

Did you ever wonder what happened to Christ after he was buried?  His body was lying in the tomb but what about his soul?  It is interesting that while the Nicene Creed used in the Orthodox Church does not say anything about Christ’s descent into Hell, the Church has a lot to say about that theme in the Holy Saturday Liturgy.

The Holy Week prayer book (p. 415) used in Greek Orthodox churches contains the following hymn:

 

Icon of the Resurrection - Descent into Hell  Source

Icon of the Resurrection – Descent into Hell Source

Today Hades cried out groaning: “Would that I had not received the One born of Mary; for He came upon me and loosed my power.  He shattered the gates of brass; the souls, which I held captive of old, as God He raised up.”  Glory O Lord to Your Cross and Your Resurrection.

Today Hades cried out groaning: “My authority is dissolved; I received a mortal, as one of the mortals; but this One, I am powerless to contain; with Him I lose all those, over which, I had ruled.  For ages I had held the Dead, but behold, He raises up all.  Glory O Lord, to Your Cross and Your Resurrection.

Today Hades cried out groaning: “My power had been trampled on; the Shepherd has been crucified, and Adam He raised up.  I have been deprived of those, over whom I ruled; and all those, I had the power to swallow, I have disgorged.  He, Who was crucified has cleared the tombs.  The dominion of Death is no more.”  Glory O Lord, to our Cross and Your Resurrection.

For Orthodox Christians Hell is not a fearful place of torment and punishment, but rather a battlefield where a great battle was fought and our Hero Christ triumphed over the enemy Death (1 Corinthians 15:20-26).

 

Greek Orthodox priest scatters rose petals.  Source

Greek Orthodox priest scatters rose petals. Source

In the Greek Orthodox tradition there is the custom of the priest walking up the aisle of the church on Holy Saturday morning scattering rose petals or flowers left and right as a sign of Christ’s triumph over Death and our release from Hell.  It is quite a surprise then to walk into an Orthodox church for the Pascha/Easter service and instead of finding everything tidy and neat, one sees a joyous mess — the floor all covered with flowers.  In a little while the walls of the church will reverberate with shouts of: “Christ is Risen!” and the response: “Truly He is Risen!”

Robert Arakaki

Articles and Resources

Dan Rodricks.  “Orthodox Easter arrives, with bells, chants and rose petals.”  The Baltimore Sun, 4 May 2013.

Wesley J. Smith.  “The Joy of Orthodox Pascha.”  First Things, 18 April 2014.

Saint John Chrysostom’s 5th century Pascha homily on Christ’s resurrection.  Also in the Holy Week service book, pp. 481-482.

 

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