The Oldest Prayer to Our Lady
By Fr. Ángel Mª Rojas, SJ
Edgar Lobel, an expert in papyrology from the University of Oxford, has dedicated his life to the study of papyri found in Egypt. The extremely dry climate in the greater part of Egypt has led to the conservation of a multitude of fragments of very ancient papyri, including texts from millennia ago, in Greek and Coptic. In many cases, the papyri help to confirm the dates of texts that had been conserved through successive copies o translations.
One of these papyri, discovered nearby the ancient Egyptian city of Oxirrince, contained a prayer to Our Lady. And not just any prayer. It is a prayer that we still continue to pray today: the Sub tuum praesidium. I would like to point out the presence of the word Theotokos (Θεοτόκος), in this case Theotóke (Θεοτόκε) because it is in the vocative case. It means “Mother of God” . Two centuries later, the Council of Ephesus solemnly recognized this title in reference to the Virgin Mary, contrary to belief of Nestorius.
This is the Greek version that was found on the papyrus and whose picture can be seen on the right:
Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν,
Τὰς ἡμῶν ἱκεσίας,
μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει,
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνων λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς,
μόνη Ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη.
It is truly impressive to be able to pray this prayer knowing that it was already being prayed by Christians by at least the year 250 A.D., that date which Edgar Lobel attributed to the papyrus upon which this prayer was found. The prayer has not been handed down to us from archeologists, but from Church Tradition, through Latin in the case of the Latin Church or Greek and Ancient Slavonic in the case of the East. It is nice to see that archeology once more shows that Tradition is not something that has been invented. Rather, it truly transmits the heritage (inheritance) that the first Christians received from Christ and the Apostles.
The prayer, Sub tuum praesidium, is a dear testimony, the oldest and most important that bears witness to the devotion to Our Lady. It is a tropario (a Byzantine hymn) that reaches our days still abounding with youthfulness. It is perhaps the oldest text that refers to the Virgin as Theotokos, and undeniably the first time that this term appears in a prayerful and invocative context.
G. Giamberardini, a specialist in primitive Christianity in Egypt, has shown in a documented study the presence of the tropario in the most diverse rites, as well as the different variations in which it appears, even in the Latin liturgy. The universality of this antiphon has led to the belief that by the second half of the third century it was common to invoke Mary as Theotokos, and that theologians, like Origen, began to take it into consideration precisely because of the importance that it was acquiring within popular devotion. This invocation would have simultaneously been introduced into the liturgy. Within the Roman Rite, the presence of this prayer is testified to by Liber Responsalis, attributed to Saint Gregory the Great.
Some manuscripts of the 10th and 11th centuries present delightful variations of this prayer, maintaining the expression Santa Dei Genitrix, in strict fidelity to the Theotokos of the Greek text. We are dealing with very faithful translations of the Greek text, just as it appears in the Byzantine Rite, in which the Greek word eysplagknían is used to refer to the merciful heart of the Mother of God. The consideration of the immense capacity of the maternal heart of the Mother of God is at the core of the popular devotion that gave such importance to the title Theotokos to refer to Jesus’ Mother.
Perhaps the most important fact is that the existence of the Sub tuum praesidium assures us that the title Theotokos was already prayed halfway through the third century in popular devotion to invoke the maternal heart of the One who bore God Himself in her womb. This time popular devotion prepared the way for Theology. The faithful who pray this prayer with all simplicity, having received it from the hands of the Church, are the closest to what was transmitted by the first Christians and, for this reason, the closest to Christ.
The Latin version of this prayer has been immortalized through music, especially by Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The Latin and English versions are as follows:
Sub tuum praesidium confugimus,
Sancta Dei Genitrix.
in necessitatibus nostris,
sed a periculis cunctis
libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.
We fly to your protection,
O Holy Mother of God;
Despise not our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us always
from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.
© HM Magazine; nº205 November-December 2018