We had some friends come to our church this Sunday who have been interested in Orthodoxy. They have been to a Vespers service before and had also attended our wedding, but this was the first time they had been to a Divine Liturgy. Although they have been interested in Orthodoxy from a historical and philosophical position they were quite "shell-shocked" after the service! With all of the hymnography, the icons, the prayers, the homily, as well as the incense and all the "smells and bells"---it was a whirlwind of information and experience for them to sift through. Hopefully this week we will get a chance to have dinner with them and talk about their thoughts and questions.
One thing that I would guess made them a bit uncomfortable was the phrase at the end of Matins, "Most Holy Theotokos, save us!" Our friends recognize the lack of honor shown to Mary in their Protestant experience, but there is something about this phrase that usually grates on a first time participant in the Liturgy. I found this old quote from a friend on this subject and I thought I'd post it here. It is food for thought for those of us with a decidedly western soteriological frame of reference.
"Most evangelicals I grew up with believed a person was certainly going to hell
unless he prayed to ask Christ to save him because of the finished work on
the Cross. After praying that prayer, one was "saved" and was now going to
heaven. Repentance and godly living were expected as natural responses to
this instantaneous act of God, but had *no effect* on the instant change of
destination which we believed the new believer had received.
It turns out, though, that salvation isn't about changing where you're going after you die; salvation is about changing what you *are*; in other words it is about relationship!
So if by "salvation" someone means "instantly changing from going-to-hell to going-to-heaven" then no, I think we'd say neither works, nor faith, nor anything else can do that. No work of ours, no prayer we can pray, no
sacrament, will coerce God into judging us a certain way - He's the sovereign Judge and the only Savior.
If by "salvation" you mean "being healed from the presence, damaging
effects, and ingrained habits of our sins" then certainly what we do has an
effect on that. But at the same time without the grace of God providing
faith and perseverance, our works aren't going to save us. Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. But with the grace of the Holy Spirit *and* with our cooperation, we can find the grace of repentance, renewing for our minds, and healing for our souls.
Because it sets off so many red lights in my Evangelical friends' minds, I
try not to say things like "works save us". Takes way too long to provide
extensive footnotes explaining the vocabulary and underlying assumptions.
But it is important to realize that it is not a false statement.
If you're drowning, and you yell, "Save me!" I'll throw you a floatation
device. Will you then reject it and say "Not you! I want Christ to save me!"
I'd suggest that, in this weak metaphor, Christ provided both a floatation
device and a guy to throw it to you, and so Christ saved you.
In the same way, when the Orthodox say things like, "Theotokos, save us!" what we are acknowledging is that Jesus is the "flotation device" that saves us from the sea of sin and death, and that Mary is the one who throws Him to us (through the Incarnation)!
In fact, anybody who participates in the rescue of another person is saving them!
Christ said of His disciples, "They shall heal the sick" but we understand that Peter or Paul were not the source of healing; rather, Peter said, "Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you." (Acts 9:34) "Save" doesn't mean "die on
the cross" - in Greek the word literally means rescue, heal, and preserve.
It's interesting that in some passages Christ forgives sin, saying
"Your faith has saved you" and in other passages he makes bodies whole,
saying "Your faith has healed you." And in both situations His words in
Greek are identical. The Greek word for "save" is the same as "to heal." It's the translators that have to decide if Christ is
speaking of healing or pardon. I'd suggest they aren't all that separate.
That's not just a semantic trick, twisting the word "save" out of shape, nor
is it an innovative teaching. Orthodoxy has always used the word "salvation"
differently from the way Evangelicalism has come to use it. Here are a few
passages of Scripture speaking of salvation as something other than Christ's
one-time act on the Cross, and speaking of others besides Christ saving us:
Paul might by all means save some (1 Cor 9:22)
Save yourselves from this untoward generation (Acts 2:40)
You will save both yourself and those who hear you (1 Tim 4:16)
Wives may save husbands; husbands may save their wives (1 Cor 7:16)
We save others with fear, pulling them out of the fire (Jude 1:23)
The engrafted word is able to save your souls (James 1:21)
Baptism now saves us(1 Peter 3:21)
Call the presbyters to anoint with oil, and the prayer of faith shall save
the sick (James 5:15)
What doth it profit though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can
faith save him? (James 2:14)
For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his
Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (Romans 5:10)
Women will be saved in childbearing (1 Tim 2:15)
Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved. (Acts 27:31)
To speak of being saved, then isn't necessarily the same thing as getting to of hell, and verses like "believe on the Lord Jesus and thou shalt be saved and thy household" (Acts 16:31) aren't speaking of a transaction. Rather, they all address parts of the PROCESS of *being* saved from our sins and more importantly from the sin nature itself and the spiritual death that follows.
Yes, works save us, and it's God who is at work in us both to will and to do. And yes, God's grace saves us through faith, and that faith is the gift of God rather than anything we work up alone, so nobody can brag about believing as if it's something he did himself. Again, it is the emphasis on the paradox that is so important in Orthodox theology and practice.
That's the kind of salvation the Orthodox talk about, and that's why the Protestant concept of instantaneous salvation by believing and nothing else is so alien to ancient Christian history and teaching."