“Sub Tuum Praesidium,” my favorite Marian antiphon, is a Latin version of the earliest written prayer to the Mother of God that has survived up to the present day.
The first time I remember singing this ancient antiphon was while I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2005. A zealous young Carmelite monk, Father Thomas of the Trinity, aka Thomas Koller, OCD, was one of the three priests who came along to say Masses and provide spiritual guidance for the group, and during our many bus rides from one holy site to another, Fr. Koller led us in Morning and Evening Prayer, and, I am happy to say, in the singing of several Marian antiphons in Latin, including this one.
The antiphon may be rendered in English as:
Under your protection we take refuge,
Oh Holy Mother of God.
Do not despise our petitions in our necessities,
but deliver us from all dangers,
Oh Always Virgin, Glorious and Blessed.”
I still enjoy singing “Sub Tuum Praesidium,” after I’m done praying the Rosary with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Latin as I’m driving around. Of course, I am able to do that only virtually–by playing sound files uploaded to iTunes from his Latin Rosary CD. For years, I also used to sing “Sub Tuum Praesidium” after the Latin Rosary with Saint John Paul II (who endearingly sang it a bit off-key with a slight Polish accent ) when I played his rosary tapes, until the tapes wore out. And sometimes lately, I just sing “Sub Tuum Praesidium” by myself around the house, when I’m feeling a need for all the protection I can get.
A Clip of Sub Tuum Praesidium Sung after Holy Mass for the closing of the Synod of Bishops at St. Peter’s Basilica, October 28, 2012 (with an exhausted-looking Pope Benedict four months before he resigned on February 28, 2013)
It can be sung any time, but “Sub Tuum Presidium” is officially used as the Marian antiphon after Compline outside of Lent, when it follows the Canticle of Simeon. “From the trusting abandonment into the hands of Divine Providence that the Canticle of Simeon proclaims (Now Thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word in peace), the piety of the faithful have added the same confident abandonment into the protection of our Heavenly Mother”.
Proof of Antiquity
The text of a Greek version of this prayer was found written on a large fragment of an Egyptian papyrus that most probably dates from around 250 A.D.
Even for those who insist on written proof, the antiquity of this parchment proves that devotion to Our Lady has been around at least since the middle of the third century. This is in contradiction to some who have claimed that the reverence the Catholic Church shows to Mary as the Mother of God was a late addition to the faith.
Regarding the dating, note that the A.D. 250 origin date is simply the earliest point to which we can date this prayer. That doesn’t mean this prayer didn’t exist earlier, and it doesn’t mean there weren’t other Marian devotions in use. But what this shows is that explicit Marian devotion has existed at least since A.D. 250.
“Also note that the A.D. 250 origin date puts the practice of Marian devotion two decades before Emperor Constantine (b. 272, made emperor in 306) was even born, let alone made emperor. That should put to rest the tired trope that Marian devotion was the result of Constantine bringing pagan ideas and practices into the Church.”–The Earliest Hymn to Our Lady Dates All the Way Back to AD 250
Many modern scholars in the Church tend to discount anything from the past if they can’t find documented evidence. One objection to that approach to history is that many things that have been written down have later decayed or otherwise got lost in the ensuing centuries. Another objection is that even if something was never written down, it is an indubitable reality that events, stories, values, and beliefs have been memorized and reliably handed down from one generation to the next by oral tradition, in cultures all around the world.
I for one suspect that by the time this prayer was written down on papyrus in beautiful uncials, it could very well have been circulating in spoken word or song among members of the early Church for around 200 years already, from the earliest years after the Dormition and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.
The Catholic Church teaches that when Christ said “Behold your mother,” to St. John the Apostle at the foot of the Cross and said to His Mother, “Behold your son,” He gave Mary not just to St. John, but to all of us, and that by that act, Christ made His Mother the Mother of the entire Church.
When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son.After that, he saith to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own.” (John 19:26-27)
We learn from “Sub Tuum Praesidium” that, from the earliest years, the Church was confident that Mary is the Mother of God, not just the mother of His humanity, that she had great power granted by her divine Son, that we her children can call upon her for her protection and mercy, and that she can deliver us from all evils.
She Whose Offspring is God
The prayer is addressed to Our Lady using the Greek word Θεοτόκος, which is an adjectival form of Θεοφόρος (Theotokos, or God-bearer) and is more properly translated as “she whose offspring is God.”
The term “Dei Genetrix” (which means bearer of God) is used in the Latin version sung by Roman Catholics.
The term “Mother of God,”which is used in English translation, is not as close in meaning to the original Greek as the Latin term.
The word “bearer” also evokes the idea that she who carried the Creator of the Universe in her womb for nine months, also literally bore him in childbirth (and as the Church also teaches, she gave birth to Him in some miraculous way that preserved her virginity), nursed him, raised Him, and lived in His company for more than thirty years. When we look at representations of the Madonna holding the Christ Child, we see her bearing Him for us and holding Him out to us.
Other Differing Terms
Several terms are different in the version of “Sub Tuum Praesidium” that we sing today in the Roman rite. The word “misericordiam” (mercy) is changed in the version of the hymn that we sing today to “praesidium” (protection). The word perdition changed to “periculis cunctis” (which means all evils, not only the possibility of hell). Instead of referring to Our Lady as “sola pura” (only pure one, stressing her unique purity as having been conceived without sin), we now sing “Virgo gloriosa” (glorious Virgin), and, finally, today’s Roman Catholic version refers to Mary as “benedicta” (blessed) instead of referring to her as “sola benedicta” (which stresses again the unique blessedness of Our Lady, which was expressed by her cousin, Elizabeth, when she called Mary, “Blessed are you among women).”
One additional comment about the Roman version of the text: the words of this antiphon were eventually put to a previously existing piece of music. Fitting the antiphon to a preexisting musical phrase caused the word “semper” (always) to be wrongly seen as applied to “libera nos” when it actually should modify “Virgo,” as a reference to Mary’s perpetual virginity. Instead of “libera nos semper, Virgo” (with the meaning free us always, O Virgin), the correct meaning is “libera nos, semper Virgo” (with the meaning free us, O always Virgin).
Mother of Protection and Mercy
I was close for a time with a Jewish woman, named Mary, who converted to Catholicism as an adult, and she told me once that, even when she was a child with no exposure to Christianity, she somehow knew about the Motherhood of Mary. Her family would be coming back from the beach on a summer’s night, and she would sleepily look out the car window and up at the sky and know that she was under the protection of a beautiful lady whose star-studded cloak was wrapped around her.
As the following images show, my friend Mary was not alone in her vision of the protection and mercy that God’s Virgin Mother provides to her children.
This post is part of a series on Marian antiphons that I’ve written for Deep Down Things blog. For an introduction to antiphons in general and Marian antiphons in specific, see An Introduction to Marian Antiphons, which also has links to my posts on other individual antiphons.
 This quote and several details in this article are from the erudite article Sub Tuum Praesidium by Henri de Villiers, a French choir director and a contributor to the New Liturgical Movement.