Monday, February 23, 2015

Oldest Hymn to the Theotokos: Reprise

So back on the 15th of January I posted a link to the Oldest Hymn to the Theotokos. Now I thought that article was pretty interesting, so I wanted to go back and give my thoughts as to why this is so significant.

Firstly, this hymn, Beneath thy Compassion, dates to circa AD 250 and is still in use today by Orthodox Christians. Let's think about that for a while, OK? This prayer dates back to before the earliest existing Liturgy that we have. And it is still in use!

"Of course this hymn is familiar to Orthodox Christians, who still sing it at the end of nearly every Vespers (evening prayer) service during the fasting season of Lent. It is also found prominently in the liturgies of the Oriental churches and in Roman Catholic worship." (Saint John's Mission)

Secondly, this prayer/hymn uses the term Theotokos about 200 years before Nestorianism became a thing (saying that Jesus had two persons, God and Man). This is significant since the Nestorians rejected the term Theotokos in favor of Christotokos or Anthropotokos (meaning bearer/birth giver of Christ and bearer/birth giver of Man, respectively), this caused quite the controversy.
"Nestorian ideas were originally confined to the writings of Diodore, Theodore of Mopsuestia and their close followers in Antioch. However, in 428, Emperor Theodore II called the Antiochian Priest-monk Nestorius, known for his zeal, to come to Constantinople. Nestorius, who brought with him the Priest Anastasius was made Archbishop of Constantinople. In a series of homilies in Constantinople, Anastasius denied the existence of one Theandric Person (The Godman) in Jesus Christ, teaching in Him a division of persons, and attacked the use of the term Theotokos, using instead the term Anthropotokos. This was quite controversial, since the Constantinopolitan faithful were acustomed to using the term Theotokos for the Virgin Mary. To defend Anastasius, Nestorius also said a series of homilies, preaching the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, though using the term Christotokos instead of Anthropotokos." (orthodoxwiki)
"As a title for the Virgin Mary, Theotokos was recognized by the Orthodox Church at Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431. It had already been in use for some time in the devotional and liturgical life of the Church. The theological significance of the title is to emphasize that Mary's son, Jesus, is fully God, as well as fully human, and that Jesus' two natures (divine and human) were united in a single Person of the Trinity. The competing view at that council was that Mary should be called Christotokos instead, meaning "Birth-giver to Christ." This was the view advocated by Nestorius, thenPatriarch of Constantinople. The intent behind calling her Christotokos was to restrict her role to be only the mother of "Christ's humanity" and not his divine nature.

"Nestorius' view was anathematized by the Council as heresy, (see Nestorianism), since it was considered to be dividing Jesus into two distinct persons, one who was Son of Mary, and another, the divine nature, who was not. It was defined that although Jesus has two natures, human and divine, these are eternally united in one personhood. Because Mary is the mother of God the Son, she is therefore duly entitled Theotokos.

"Calling Mary the Theotokos or the Mother of God (Μητηρ Θεου) was never meant to suggest that Mary was coeternal with God, or that she existed before Jesus Christ or God existed. The Church acknowledges the mystery in the words of this ancient hymn: 'He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos.'"(orthodoxwiki)

This controversy caused quite a disturbance in the Empire, enough for an Ecumenical Council to be called to put an end to the heresy. Also, this Third Ecumenical Council is the one that affirmed the title of Theotokos to be used for Mary (as we saw, however, the term was in use before then).

Thirdly, we see here the term Theotokos being used roughly about 150 years after the death of St. John the Apostle. However, there is evidence of earlier usage.
"The term Theotokos may be encountered during the previous century as well in the work of the Alexandrian school. According to the testimony of the ecclesiastical historian Socrates (Hist. Eccl. VII, 32 – PG 67, 812 B), Origen used it in his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. This commentary is unfortunately now lost, but Origen’s disciple, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, also used the term Theotokos around the year 250 in an extant epistle to Paul of Samosata. It is interesting to note that the term did not remain a mere theological concept, but was actively and popularly used in public services of prayer." (Saint John's Mission) 
The Socrates mentioned above was born about AD 379, and Origen was born about AD 185, which places his writings in the early 3rd century. That means that the term Theotokos was in use at least about 100 years after the death of the last Apostle.

So why is all of this so significant? Well, it shows that the title Theotokos which means birth giver/bearer of God has been in use for a very long time. The title is used to bring home the fact that Mary is indeed the Mother of God, not just the Mother of the human nature of Jesus, but of both natures. The title Theotokos tells us that Jesus is fully God and fully man; He was born with both natures in the same person, He did not suddenly gain divinity after He was born.

This is significant because it shows us that the early Church (before St. Constantine muddled it up, according to many Protestants/Evangelicals, with paganism) used this title for Mary. To deny that Mary is the birth-giver of God is to deny the incarnation. To deny that Mary is the birth-giver of God is to affirm that Mary gave birth to only a good man, and a great teacher, NOT our Lord and Savior who is Man and God.
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