O Mary, thou sacred dwelling of the Lord, raise us fallen into a bottomless pit of despair, wrongdoing and affliction; for thou art the salvation and succour and powerful advocate of those that have sinned, and thou dost save thy servants. (Tone 1, Matins, sessional hymn)
Sometimes something becomes so familiar to us that we no longer hear what is said. This was brought to mind when a non-Orthodox attended a Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox Church recently. His question was, "How can Mary the Mother of Jesus, save us?" He said that the priest intoned the plea at the end of the service.
It is true that at the conclusion of most of our services the priest intones, "Most Holy Theotokos, save us!" The visitor to the church, along with many other people, did not understand what is meant by this. To ask the Mother of God to save us is an ancient and revered Christian custom. By this expression we do not address the Virgin Mary as our Redeemer. Our only Saviour and Redeemer is Jesus Christ. The Orthodox Church has never had a notion of the Mother of God as a Redemtrix. We ask the Virgin for her prayers for our salvation from perils and sin. We ask her to save us from those things that impede our ascent toward salvation in Christ.
The word "save" as we use it in reference to the Mother of God, is found in a number of places in Sacred Scripture. St. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles (2:40) exclaims, Save yourselves from this ontoward generation. In I Cor. 1:21 we read that it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching to save them who believe. We also find in Romans 11:14 that St. Paul, speaking to the Jews, says that he hopes by his example to save some of them.
Now let us discuss these references. Needless to say, St. Peter does not suggest that Christians can save themselves. Certainly we do not replace Christ by "preaching" when we understand that preaching has saved believers. And, of course, when St. Paul expressed his desire to save his fellow Jews, he certainly is not, by this expression, taking the redemptive power of Christ.
As in our prayers to the Mother of God, we are using the word save in a special way. This in no way compromises our belief that Christ alone saves and redeems our souls.
From The Orthodox Herald, September 1994; reprinted with kind permission of the editors.[_private/oabot.htm]