Sunday, December 3, 2017

The First Christians Prayed Like This to the Virgin Mary

Edgar Lobel, an expert in Papyrology at the University of Oxford, dedicated his life to the study of the papyrus found in Egypt. As it is known, the extremely dry climate of most of Egypt has preserved many fragments of ancient papyrus, with texts from millennia ago, in Greek and Coptic. Many of these texts had been lost. In other cases, the papyrus serve to confirm the antiquity of texts that had been preserved through successive copies or translations.

One of these papyrus, discovered in the vicinity of the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, contained a prayer to Our Lady. And not any prayer, but one that we continue to pray today called Sub tuum praesidium. The Latin version is:

Sub tuum praesidium
Sancta Dei Genitrix.
Nostras deprecationes ne despicias
in necessitatibus nostris,
sed a periculis cunctis
libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.
English version:

Beneath thy protection
we seek refuge,
Holy Mother of God;
despise not our petitions
in our needs,
but from all dangers
deliver us always,
Virgin Glorious and Blessed .

And the classic Greek version, which is precisely the one found in the papyrus. Just look carefully at the picture of the papyrus to recognize the original Greek words:

Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν,
καταφεύγομεν, Θεοτόκε.
Τὰς ἡμῶν ἱκεσίας,
μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει,
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνων λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς,
μόνη Ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη.
Note the presence of the term Theotokos (in this case, Theotoke), that is, "Mother of God."

Two centuries later, at the Council of Ephesus, it was solemnly recognized that this title was suitable for the Virgin Mary, against the advice of Nestorius.

This means that in Ephesus, the Tradition of the Church was defended against those who preferred their own reasoning to the usual teaching of the Church.

It is quite impressive for us to say this prayer, knowing that the early Christians prayed it already in 250 AD, which is the date on which Edgar Lobel dated the papyrus the prayer was found in (although some believe that it dates back to the previous century).

We have not received it from archaeologists, but from the tradition of the Church, through Latin, in the case of the Latin Church, or from Greek and ancient Slavonic in the East.

It is nice, however, that archeology shows us once again that Tradition is not something invented, but that it truly transmits to us the inheritance that the first Christians received from Christ and from the Apostles.

Theotokos, the Mother of God

The prayer Sub tuum praesidium is an endearing testimony, probably the oldest and the most important around the devotion to Our Lady. It is a troparion (Byzantine hymn) full of youthfulness. It is perhaps the oldest text in which Our Lady is called Theotokos, and unquestionably it is the first time that this term appears in a sentence and invocative context.

G. Giamberardini, a specialist in Egyptian primitive Christianity, in a documented study has shown the presence of the troparion in the most diverse rites and its different variants found even in the Latin liturgy.

The universality of this antiphon suggests that already in the mid-third century it was usual to invoke Our Lady as Theotokos, and that theologians, like Origen, began to pay attention to it, precisely because of the importance it acquired in popular piety. This invocation would have been simultaneously introduced in the Liturgy.

In the Roman rite, it appears in the Liber Responsalis, attributed to Saint Gregory the Great, and it is copied in the ninth century in the following form: "Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Sancta Dei Genitrix". Some manuscripts of the tenth and eleventh centuries present some interesting variations of this prayer, keeping the expression Sancta Dei Genitrix intact, in strict fidelity to the Theotokos of the Greek text.

These are very faithful translations of the Greek text, as it appears in the Byzantine rite, in which the Greek word eysplagknían is used to refer to the merciful entrails of the Mother of God.

The consideration of the immense capacity of the maternal entrails of the Mother of God is at the core of the popular piety that gave so much importance to the title Theotokos to designate the Mother of Jesus.

And perhaps the most important thing is the fact that the testimony of the Sub tuum praesidium raises the suspicion that the title Theotokos originated in the mid-third century in popular piety as an invocation to the maternal entrails of the one that carried God in her womb. This time, perhaps, popular piety was ahead of Theology. At least, it is very plausible that it was so.

The faithful who, with simplicity, say this prayer to the Sancta Dei Genitrix, the Theotokos, the Mother of God, because they have received it from the hands of the Church, are closest to what the first Christians transmitted and, therefore, so much closer to Christ.

The Latin version of this prayer has been immortalized in music especially by Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Lucas F. Mateo-Seco,  La devoción mariana en la primitiva Iglesia
Cfr G. Giamberardini, Il “Sub tuum praesidium” e il titolo Theotokos nella tradizione egiziana, en “Marianum” 31 (1969) 350-351; A.M. Malo, La plus ancienne prière à notre Dame, en De primordis cultus mariani, cit., t. 2, 475-485.