In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her home.
Luke 1: 39-49, 56
Throughout the first fourteen days of August, most Orthodox Churches are celebrating the service of Paraklesis. This is a service of supplication to the Virgin Mary. Why her? Why not supplicate Christ directly? There are a few reasons. First, she knows Christ better than we do. So, in asking for her intercessions, we are asking her to go to Christ on our behalf. We are asking Christ to answer our prayers but we are using her as an intercessor. Let’s say that I want a favor from an older man in our parish, who I don’t know well. And let’s say that I am good friends with the man’s son. I could go to the son and ask him to approach his father with my request. The father is ultimately going to grant the request (or not) but I am asking the son to intercede on my behalf.
Secondly, the Virgin Mary is the mother of all Christians. When we were growing up, and we were sad, or hurt or sick, the first person we went to was our mother. We wanted our mother to comfort us. It’s not that we didn’t want to go to our father, but it was our mothers who we went to for comfort. In times of sorrow and distress, the Church has provided this service for us, to run to our mother for comfort.
Third, we are not expected to carry our burdens alone. This is why in the Paraklesis service, we offer up our names and our needs and they are prayed for in the context of worship. Not everyone in the church will know every name, but everyone can enjoin their thoughts and prayers with the names being mentioned. Every name on the list will need some kind of comfort. So in hearing the names and in praying for the names we hear, we are uniting with one another, going to our Mother with the sorrows of all. And she in turn will place them at the feet of the Lord, asking Him to help us and heal us.
The Paraklesis service is celebrated during the first fourteen days of August, and can be done at any time, especially in times of sorrow or need or distress. When the 9/11 terrorist attack happened in 2001, that night churches held Paraklesis services, as opposed to Vespers or Divine Liturgy. We lifted up in prayer the names of our loved ones who were affected and the needs of those we didn’t even know—like first responders, doctors, families of the victims, etc. In the Divine Liturgy (and other services) we tend to pray in generalities—for those who are sick or traveling or in captivity, for our city, our country, our church community. In the Paraklesis service we can pray for specific names and specific needs. Just write them on a list and give them to the priest to commemorate. If there is ever a time of need in your life, for instance, someone receives bad medical news, this is a time to ask a priest to offer a Paraklesis (or to offer part of the Paraklesis if time is limited).
In the Gospel lesson read at the Paraklesis service, we read about the visit of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias, were both righteous in the sight of God. They were not able to have children and they were old in years. The Archangel Gabriel visited Zacharias and told him that he and Elizabeth were indeed going to have a child, even in their advanced years and this child was going to be the “Forerunner” of the Savior. He was going to pave the way for the Christ and let people know who the Christ was. Elizabeth was five months pregnant with her child, John the Baptist, at the time of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. Perhaps another month or two passed before Mary went to visit Elizabeth, with Elizabeth into the third trimester of her pregnancy and Mary newly pregnant, with the Christ-child, conceived in her by the Holy Spirit.
There is a well-known Catholic prayer/devotional called “Hail Mary.” Many people do not know that there is also an Orthodox Hymn by the same title which is taken from Luke 1: “Hail Mary, Virgin full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. For you have given birth to the Savior of our souls.” This comes from Luke 1:28: “Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you!” and Luke 1:42: “Blessed are you among woman and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” This hymn is sung at an Artoklasia, the service of the blessing of the five loaves, as well as at Vespers services during Great Lent.
When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the babe in her womb leaps for joy. John the Baptist (in Elizabeth’s womb) already recognizes and is giving joyful testimony to Christ (Who is in the womb of Mary). What follows, in Luke 1:46-55, is Mary’s song of praise, also called “the Magnificat.” This forms today’s prayer and is sung at nearly every Orthros (or Matins) service with verses interspersed with a refrain “greater in honor than the Cherubim,” a hymn that lauds the Virgin Mary as greater than the angels. During this hymn, the priest or deacon offers incense over the whole church, censing the icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary, as well as all the people, the children of the Church.
We pray only to Christ, but we ask continually for the intercessions of His mother, the Virgin Mary.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm, He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away.
He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His posterity forever.
Greater in honor than the Cherubim, and in glory greater beyond compare than the Seraphim; you without corruption gave birth to God the Word, and are truly Theotokos. You do we magnify. (From the Matins service, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Ask for the intercessions of the Virgin Mary today in your prayers!