Can the Virgin Mary “save” us?

St. John of Damascus asking the Virgin Mary for the healing of his severed hand
St. John of Damascus asking the Virgin Mary for the healing of his severed hand

Today I read the comments on this YouTube video. I know, I know—YouTube comments generally are the lowest form of discourse on the Internet, and I wasn’t terribly surprised to see that someone thought that the musical line “Most Holy Mother of God, save us” was “blasphemous.” (He preferred to hear his blasphemy in Latin, apparently.)

I must admit to being a bit baffled, because usually those who would regard the idea that the Virgin Mary could “save” us as “blasphemous” come from traditions with a strong attachment to the words of Holy Scripture. Presumably, “save” should only be used regarding God Himself. But the Scripture itself doesn’t set that limit.

The Apostle Paul is of the opinion that he can save people and that others can do so, too, that they can even save themselves:

For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. (Rom. 11:13-14)

For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? (I Cor. 7:16)

…to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (I Cor. 9:22)

Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. (I Tim. 4:16)

And James says that “the prayer of faith” can “save”:

And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15)

And Peter says baptism saves us:

There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (I Peter 3:21)

And Jude goes so far as to command his readers to save others:

But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh. (Jude 1:20-23)

So while we wouldn’t say that all these people and things “save” us in the sense that God alone can save us, we certainly can affirm with the apostles cited here that we “save” one another, that prayer “saves,” and that baptism “saves.” That is, all these things contribute to our salvation which comes solely through Christ.

Given all that, and given that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 21:1), the saints who do indeed see and hear us, and especially given that we know they are praying for us (Rev. 5:8), it’s really pretty reasonable to say that the Virgin Mother of our Lord can “save” us.

19 comments:

  1. Thank you Father. I remember wrestling with this use of the word “save” following 33+ yrs as a Reformed protestant. Our tradition had so shrunk the use of the word ‘save’ down to a very narrow minimalism — it could ONLY refer to the saving work of our Savior, Christ Himself, on the Cross. What is especially strange is that the Apostles and others who wrote the New Testament Scriptures often use the same word ‘save’ in a broader sense of human instrumentality. (The Reformed tradition would say you are only talking about “instrumental means”…NOT salvation itself.) Frankly, this splits theological hairs on a gnat’s backside that the Apostles clearly did not. It’s also one example where some “traditions” depart from their own zeal for ‘sola scriptura’ in a obvious manner. So yes. If the “fervent prayers of a righteous man” (or my dear grandmother) availeth much” in my salvation…then it is an easy and logical step to say the prayers of the Virgin Theotokos might save us. Lord have mercy. [Deacon Michael Hyatt has a good audio SS lesson on this here: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/eastwest/most_holy_theotokos_save_us

  2. I am writing my Master’s thesis on this prayer. Here are some of my comments concerning the use of the word save. I have omitted the references although the numbering is still present, forgive me.

    Of the five words in the prayer the most controversial would be “save.” When we say, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us” what are we actually asking? Are we appealing to the Theotokos for something or are we asking her to act on something? The online Wiktionary defines it in general as ”to prevent harm or difficulty, to help somebody to survive, or rescue somebody from harm. Used in a biblical manner “save” (σώζω) in Greek means material and temporal deliverance from danger, suffering.1 Neither definition answers the question, “is it an appeal or an act” that we are requesting. It is obvious that we are asking for assistance. In order to answer this we must fall back on tradition and what is requested in prayers and services from the Theotokos in the Orthodox Church. We must understand the mindset of the Church.
    In most prayers to the Theotokos we are asking her to intercede for us, an appeal to her. The first antiphon during the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom which is repeated three times states, “Through the intercessions of the Theotokos, O Savior, save us.”2 After Holy Communion, the priest after giving thanks returns to the Holy Table and places the consecrated portions, prepared during the Proskomide (Πρόθεσις) which means”in setting forth” in Greek, representing the Mother of God, the saints and the living and dead commemorated into the chalice, saying: “Wash away, Lord, by Your holy Blood, the sins of all those here commemorated, through the intercessions of the Theotokos and all Your saints. Amen”3 And finally in the dismissal prayer the priest says: “May Christ our true God, through the prayers of His most pure Mother….”4 In the Service of Hours we pray in the first hour: “What shall we call thee, O Full of Grace? Heaven – for thou didst shine forth the Sun of Righteousness. Paradise – for thou hast blossomed forth the flower of incorruption. Virgin – for thou has remained incorrupt. Pure Mother – for thou has held in thy holy embrace a Son Who is God of all. Beseech Him to save our souls.”5 In the third hour we pray: “O Theotokos, thou art the True Vine who didst bud forth for us the Fruit of Life. We entreat thee, O Sovereign Lady, intercede together with the Holy Apostles that He may be merciful to our souls.”6 Also, at the end of the Divine Liturgy, the priest implores the mercy of God through the intercession of the Theotokos and all the saints. I can continue producing prayers from various services within the Orthodox Church with the same theme. What is important here is the mindset of the Orthodox Church concerning the Theotokos. We as Orthodox look to her as an intercessor, we appeal to her, to intercede before her Son and Our Lord and Master to save us. If we were asking her to act, unilaterally, then there would be no reason to ask for her intercessions and prayers as stated above. We are not asking her to act directly to save our souls, that can only be done by the one who sacrificed Himself for us, Jesus Christ.
    The word “save” as we use it in reference to the Mother of God is found in scriptures. St. Peter exclaims, “…Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” (Acts 2: 40) and “…it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (Acts 1:21)and also “ ..I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” (Romans 11: 13-14). Do we imply here by the use of the word “save” that we can save ourselves or that Peter can unilaterally save us? No, I think not. The implication is that Peter can intercede for us, assist us but that salvation comes through Christ.

  3. Thank you Fr. Andrew for bringing up this discussion; David for sharing the podcast link; and Andrew P. for sharing you thoughts.

    Honestly, as one awaiting confirmation, I confess that I still struggle with this.

    I have no problem with the reality that the process of salvation is effected by God through people. Thus as Andrew P. mentioned, this phrase from the Divine Liturgy makes perfect sense: “Through the intercessions of the Theotokos, savior Save us.” To isolate the usage of the word “save” to be used only in relation to the savior creates the potential for one to err by disregarding the critical role in salvation that God has given to his people.

    But when we say things like, “Most Holy Mother of God (Theotokos) save us” it is just way too vague for comfort. Doesn’t this type of language create the potential for one to err by placing too much emphasis on the role of the person being used rather than God who is working in and through them?

    For example, when I see things like the caption of the icon on this page, “St. John of Damascus asking the Virgin Mary for the healing of his severed hand” I find myself wondering… Is St. John of Damascus asking Mary to heal his hand or is he asking her to pray for his hand to be healed by God? I would hope the answer is always coming around the idea that “God works in and through his people” as Andrew P. implied I hope this truly is the mindset of the Church.

    But if the Church’s answer to this question is always, “God works in and through his people” why don’t we use language that effectively communicates that rather than using vague language that opens the door for confusion and concern?

    Surely we can’t argue that Orthodoxy wants to keep it pithy, that would be completely out of character!

    Of course I am probably just missing the bigger picture. I’ve come to realize the Church does nothing without purpose. I would love to be more illumined in this matter. Thanks for taking the time!

    1. I’d argue that we do indeed use effective language. In this case, the context of Orthodox liturgical life—not to mention, the Scriptural language featured here—make it clear that “save” has a broader meaning than referring exclusively to the fact that our salvation comes only from God.

      But anything can be taken out of context and distorted. The Reformation took salvation language out of context and therefore distorted it. But there’s no reason we have to read these things through the lens of the Reformation.

      1. That is a very good point. It would be impossible to compensate for the variety of flawed lenses that exist. Once again the transformation needs to occur in me, not in the Church! Thank you!

          1. Don’t forget also that as a member of the Church everything is communal. It isn’t just our personal relationship with Christ but it is in the Church and through the Church that we are saved by Him. It makes it seem less weird when you begin to shift to that mindset to ask the saints to save us through their prayers.

          2. It’s also of note here that this isn’t so much about whether one takes save literally but rather about what the definition of save actually is. It’s pretty obvious from Scripture that save can be used rather broadly. Narrowing it to refer only to what God does with the willing believer requires cutting out some of the usages in Scripture.

    2. “Keeping it pithy” is absolutely a reasonable way to understand it. It’s fundamentally a liturgical text with a particular function: it’s the refrain between the troparia (individual short hymns) of a canon. It’s intended to be short, sweet, and to the point.

  4. I am not a Roman Catholic, but I think that the final phase of the Hail Mary best defines my understanding of the relationship “Holy Mary pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

  5. Hi All,

    As a cradle and nominal Roman Catholic, until my reversion, head over heels, back into the RC church, I was a bit wishy washy about praying to the Mother Mary. I asked, as a Protestant would ask, why pray to her?

    After coming to my senses, and taking a good look at our devotion to her, I realized that we don’t pray to her as we are told we do by our Protestant brethren. We ask for her intercession. A very nominal Catholic such as myself, let the Protestant negation of Mary, influence how I understood her in the life of the Church.

    I’ve had to explain more than a few time to both Catholics and Protestants, that we don’t pray to the Mother Mary; we ask for her intercession.

    A commentary on The Wedding at Cana pointed me to her intercessory capabilities. If you love everybody that Jesus loved, he love his Mother, we should love her too. The Spouse of the Holy Spirit.

    In Christ,

    Ron

  6. Even words like “prayer” have a different context in Scripture than meaning “only what one does to God”.

    Jer 21:1-2 The word which came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, when king Zedekiah sent unto him Pashhur the son of Malchijah, and Zephaniah the son of Maaseiah the priest, saying, Inquire, I pray thee, of the LORD for us; for Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon maketh war against us: peradventure the LORD will deal with us according to all his wondrous works, that he may go up from us.

    Thus, they “pray” (make requests) to the Holy Prophet Jeremiah to make intercessions for them aka “praying to the Prophet Jeremiah”.

    As for the word “save”, even in the OT where the Lord God says: “I am the only Savior” (Isa. 43:11), it had other usage:

    1Sa 9:16-17 “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.” When Samuel saw Saul, the LORD told him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you! He it is who shall restrain my people.”

    Also note the early reference to the interpretation that it is a monarchy which “restrains” ungodliness. (2 Thess. 2:7)

    1Sa 10:26-7 Saul also went to his home at Gibeah, and with him went men of valor whose hearts God had touched. But some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” And they despised him and brought him no present. But he held his peace.

    2Ki 13:4-5 Then Jehoahaz sought the favor of the LORD, and the LORD listened to him, for he saw the oppression of Israel, how the king of Syria oppressed them. Therefore the LORD gave Israel a savior, so that they escaped from the hand of the Syrians, and the people of Israel lived in their homes as formerly.

    2Ki 14:27 But the LORD had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.

    Neh 9:27 Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer. And in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies.

    Oba 1:21 Saviors shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau, and the kingdom shall be the LORD’s.

    It just seems quite obvious to me that the Orthodox and Roman Catholics are being more scriptural on these points. Protestants have gone so far as to redefine words used for thousands of years in various contexts in an attempt to cleanse themselves from idolatry.

  7. Father, bless.

    I’d suggest adding another verse from St James:

    “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save their soul from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (5:20).

    RVW

  8. Context and nuance are EVERYTHING. Thank you Aba Andrew. This is issue of diction is at the root of many divisions amongst Ethiopian Christians (internally betwixt Orthodox and also with the many flavors of Protestantism). We need more instructions unto life like this. In my capacity as a deacon, I will try to emulate and share this message (word).

  9. Dear Fr Andrew,
    Thank you for a very helpful blog post!Perhaps one could say that the atoning sacrifice is Christ’s alone as the Holy Lamb of God, while mediating grace, interceding and saving from a multitude of sins is shared throughout His body, by members living and ‘departed’ ( I would prefer to say truly living).

    As an anglican priest I do not find the fault to lie as much with the Reformers, who were so often right and wrong in the same breath, as with those of us who have inherited a distorted echo of their convictions, not in the form of a sacred faith, but as facile slogans and instinctive prejudices. I have sought to repent of the following hall marks of modern protestantism:

    – speaking of the Theotokos and the other saints without love and respect;
    – a literalist biblicism that projects enlightenment values into Holy Scripture; ;
    – a false ecclesiology (“the true church died with the apostles and was revived by the reformers”), which leads to a separation from the Fathers and the teaching of the ‘Greater Church’.

    My current struggle for a faith with deeper is to see whether I can see the Seven Councils as guided by the Spirit (anglicans tend to stop at Chalcedon).

    What I retain from my protestant roots is the habit of praying informally and a deep love for the words of Holy Scripture – not that there is a protestant monopoly on those!

    Yours in Christ
    Rev’d Olaf

  10. I think it would be more accurate to say that there are different actual definitions of “save”. Saying that it has a broader meaning isn’t very helpful. I have been bothered by asking Mary to save us as well. While there are Bible versus that show the role others have in saving us, the problem is that I have never heard a prayer in an orthodox church asking any saint or fellow Christian to save us. Add to this that we refer to Christ as our savior and it understandably gets confusing.
    It also draws to mind some of the feminist criticisms of Orthodoxy and Catholicism by those who would like her to be seen as a co-redemptrix.

      1. Sorry if I was unclear. The point I was making is that if the usage of “save” with respect to Mary is similar to asking a saint or fellow Christian to save us, why don’t we see this in Orthodox prayer and song? I have gone to Orthodox Church for 7+ years now and the only person other than Christ who is asked to save us in my experience is Mary.

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