The earliest known prayer to the Theotokos (Greek, Θεοτόκος, meaning “Bearer
of God”) is a prayer found on a fragment of papyrus dating back to
approximately AD 250. In 1917, the John Rylands Library  in Manchester,
England, acquired a large panel of Egyptian papyrus. The prayer is located
on the fragment recorded as reference number Greek Papyrus 470. The prayer
appears to be from a Coptic Christmas liturgy or vespers written in Koine
Greek although the fragment in question may be a private copy of the prayer.
The prayer is still chanted in the Orthodox Church to this day at the end of
nearly every Vespers service during Lent. It is also found in the worship
services of the Roman Catholic and Oriental Churches.
The early date of this prayer is important for a number of reasons, one of
which is that it supports our understanding that the termTheotokos was not
just a theological concept defended at the Third Ecumenical Council in AD
431, but was already in popular use and well-known several centuries before
the Nestorian heresy. As St. Gregory of Nazianzus stated in AD 379, “If
someone does not uphold that the holy Mary is Theotokos, he is separated
from divinity.” (Letter 101, PG 37, 177C) Early Christians recognized the
Theotokos as a powerful intercessor for those who are suffering and in need
of protection. Christians have been seeking her intercessions from the time
of the ancient Church and well over a thousand years up to this very day.
Beneath thy compassion,
We take refuge, O Mother of God:
do not despise our petitions in time of trouble,
rescue us from dangers,
pure one, only blessed one.
Hear the hymn in Greek:
Υπο την σην ευσπλαγχνιαν καταφευγομεν Θεοτοκε. τας ημων ικεσιας μη παριδης
εν περιστασει, αλλ’ εκ κινδυνων λυτρωσαι ημας, μονη αγνη, μονη ευλογημενη.
See also our video on “The
Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos” and the video on “Our
Pilgrimage to Where the Theotokos Fell Asleep”.
An excerpt from “The Significance of the Term Theotokos” from The Byzantine
Fathers of the Fifth Century (Fr. Georges Florovsky) June, 1987.
“The term Theotokos — Θεοτοκος — does not mean the same as “Mother of God”
in English or the common Latin translation. In English one must translate
Theotokos as “Bearer of God.” The correct Latin would bedeipara or dei
genetrix, not Mater Dei. Had Nestorius been more prudent he would have
realized that the term Theotokos had a comparatively long usage — it had
been used by Origen, by Alexander of Alexandria, by Eusebius of Caesarea,
Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and
Cyril. In the Latin West Tertullian had used the term Dei Mater in De
patientia 3 and Ambrose also used it in his Hexaemeron V, 65 (Patrologia
Latina. 14, 248A). More significant is that the Antiochene theologian
Eustathius (bishop of Antioch from c.324 to 330), so often considered a
forerunner of Nestorius, had some remarkably un-Antiochene tendencies in his
Christology, one of which was the use of the term Theotokos.”
1. Image Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director,
The John Rylands University Library, The University of Manchester. For more
information on the fragment, visit: http://tinyurl.com/kh3fy5d
2. “The Significance of the Term Theotokos” from The Byzantine Fathers of
the Fifth Century (Fr. Georges Florovsky) June, 1987.