Thursday, July 03, 2014

Stump the Priest: A Hymn to the Theotokos

Question: "The last paragraph in the Akathist to the Kursk Root icon says: "...for we have no other help beside thee, no other intercessor, nor gracious comforter but thee, O Mother of God, to preserve and protect us unto the ages of ages. Amen." I have several questions here: 1). No other help beside her? What about our guardian angel and the Akathist to him? Why do we waste our time praying to him if the Theotokos is our only help and intercessor? And why do we waste our time praying to our patron saint and other saints? 2). No gracious comforter but the Theotokos? The Holy Spirit has the role of comforter (John 15:26). Does this prayer teach that no other saint or angel can comfort us? 3). We ask her to preserve and protect us unto the ages of ages. This prayer seems to imply that in the heavenly afterlife, Christians are in some sort of spiritual danger, so that we are in need of protection of the Theotokos."

You have to first consider the genre of literature you are dealing with. You are not dealing with words from a geometry textbook. You are dealing with hymns, that are poetic. Even outside of poetry, you encounter hyperbole in Scripture. For example, when Christ said "And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell" (Matthew 5:29), the point was not that we should systematically eliminate various parts of our bodies. As St. John Chrysostom observed: "therefore He hath given these injunctions; not discoursing about our limbs; -- far from it, -- for nowhere doth He say that our flesh is to be blamed for things, but everywhere it is the evil mind that is accused. For it is not the eye that sees, but the mind and the thought. Often, for instance, we being wholly turned elsewhere, our eye sees not those who are present. So that the matter does not entirely depend upon its working. Again, had He been speaking of members of the body, He would not have said it of one eye, nor of the right eye only, but of both. For he who is offended by his right eye, most evidently will incur the same evil by his left also. Why then did He mention the right eye, and add the hand? To show thee that not of limbs is He speaking, but of them who are near unto us. Thus, “If,” saith He, “thou so lovest any one, as though he were in stead of a right eye; if thou thinkest him so profitable to thee as to esteem him in the place of a hand, and he hurts thy soul; even these do thou cut off.” And see the emphasis; for He saith not, “Withdraw from him,” but to show the fullness of the separation, “pluck it out,” saith He, “and cast it from thee” (Homily 17:3 on Matthew). So hyperbole, particularly in poetry is a perfectly legitimate way of speaking, but it has to be understood in the manner it is intended.

Also, in the Russian prayer book, at the end of the evening prayers, we say "All of my hope I place in thee, O Mother of God: keep me under thy protection." But two prayers after that, we say "My hope is the Father, my refuge is the Son, my protection is the Holy Spirit: O Holy Trinity, glory to Thee." Now if the first statement was meant to suggest that all of our hope was placed in the Virgin Mary, to the exclusion of having hope in anything or anyone else, then you would have a contradiction, but clearly you would not have contradictory statements set right next to one another. The point of the prayer is to say that we have complete hope in the Theotokos. And this hope is not separate from our hope in the Trinity. Thou we do not always spell it out in each and every request we make of the Mother of God, we are always asking that she help us by her prayers. As we sing in the festal antiphons, "Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior, save us." We do not believe that the Virgin Mary and the Saints are demigods that act independently of the Trinity. They help us by their prayers. Obviously, God does not need our prayers, or the prayers of the saints, but it evidently pleases Him that we pray to Him and that we ask others to pray for us, and for Him to work in answer to our prayers. We are told that the saints will reign with Christ (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:4, 6), and clearly this is not because Christ needs our help... but because it pleases Him that it be so. In 1st Samuel (1st Kings LXX) 2:30 we are told, "for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed." And the Psalter tells us "Wondrous is God in His saints (Psalm 67[68]:35). God chooses to work miracles through the prayers of the saints, because they are His friends (John 15:15, James 2:23) and He wishes to honor them, because they honored Him

When this text speaks of "no other intercessor" and "no other comforter", this is an example of hyperbole. It is a poetic way of expressing our desperate need. A classic example from cinema is from the first Star Wars movie:

That did not mean that no one else was going to be of any assistance in the fight against Darth Vader. And we are certainly not suggesting that the Theotokos can help us, but God cannot. And again, when it talks about being protected and preserved unto the ages of ages, this does not mean that after we are glorified and in heaven with Christ for all eternity that we will be in the same desperate need of the prayers of the Theotokos, but it does mean that if we ever want to get there, it would be a big help to have the help and protection of her prayers.

There are many poetic statements in Scripture that are not likely to be taken literally. For example, we are told in the prophecy of Isaiah that "the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (Isaiah 55:12). Mountains cannot sing, and trees do not have hands. This is poetic statement, that paints a picture, which conveys something true, but has to be understood in the sense in which it was intended.