Friday, February 27, 2015

The Earliest Prayer to the Theotokos

By Sophia Desiatov

tabinsk-icon-mg.jpgIn the Church services, there are many prayers concerning the Most Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have feasts that commemorate Her life and hymns that exalt Her name. One such prayer is the oldest known prayer to the Theotokos, known as ‘Beneath thy compassion’. Written on a piece of papyrus and originally in Greek, the prayer dates back to approximately 250 A.D, and asks the Holy Virgin to protect us from all danger.

What’s interesting about the prayer is the use of Theotokos, which means ‘she who gave birth to God’ or ‘God-bearer’ in Greek. The only time the name Theotokos was mentioned was during the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 A.D, when the Nestorian heresy came about. Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, said in his teachings that the Virgin Mary should be called Christotokos (‘Christ-bearer’) instead of Theotokos. Nevertheless, the Council condemned Nestorius and his doctrine and defended the Virgin Mary’s rightful title of God-bearer. However, this prayer illustrates that the term was more than a theological concept and was already in use well before the time of the Ecumenical Council.

theotokos-prayer.jpgὙπὸ τὴν σὴν
Θεοτὸκε• τὰς ἡμῶν
ἱκεσίας μὴ παρ-
ίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνου
λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς
μόνη ἁγνὴ
μόνη εὐλογημένη.

In English:
Beneath your
we take refuge,
Theotokos! Our
prayers, do not despise
in necessities,
but from danger
deliver us,
only pure,
only blessed one.

It’s fascinating that a soulful and spiritual prayer has been circulated throughout the Christian world and is still used today in Church services. It only serves to illustrate that the Holy Theotokos is with us and will intercede for us on our behalf, if we have fervent prayer in our hearts.

A modern Russian rendition of the same prayer:

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