A Sermon for the Feast of the Protection of the Theotokos (2018)

October 14, 2018

A Sermon for the Feast of the Protection of the Theotokos (2018)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Introduction

Throughout the Scriptures and the history of the Church, we learn that God reveals Himself and the workings of His providence to those who are worthy, to those He chooses.

In the year that King Uzziah died, the prophet Isaiah tells us he was granted a glimpse of the holiness of God when he saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, surrounded by seraphim who cried “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:1-3). When Jesus came to be baptized, John the Baptist said that he saw the Spirit descending upon Him as a dove and therein knew that He was the Son of God (Cf. John 1:29-34). The Protomartyr Stephen, at his martyrdom, looked up and saw the heavens open and the glory of God with Jesus, the Son of Man, sitting at the right hand of God, into whose bosom he was about to be received (Acts 6:55-56). Moreover, today, the veil of our present reality is pulled back and Sts. Andrew and Epiphanius see the Mother of God with a host of saints and understood that she was praying for the whole world. Today we commemorate this event.

Narration

In the 10th Century, the Mother of God appeared in a Church on outskirts of Constantinople called Blachernae. This church was second in prominence after the Hagia Sophia and was a significant site of pilgrimage as it housed many holy objects including the robe, veil, and part of the belt of the Theotokos.

At the fourth hour of the night, the Mother of God came into the Church surrounded by angels and saints, as was seen only by St. Andrew, the fool-for-Christ (commemorated on Oct. 2) who was there with his disciple St. Epiphanius. She knelt in the church in prayer and then arose and went into the altar. Afterward, she came out of the altar, took off her veil and covered all those assembled who were there. It is from this action that the name of our present feast comes, as the Russian word pokrov (Покров) and the Greek word skepê (Σκέπη) both have a meaning which refers to a veil or shroud and also to protection or intercession.

The Prayers of the Mother of God for Us

One significant meaning we find regarding this feast, a miraculous event that happened over a millennium ago, is that it reassures us of the Mother of God’s intercessions and prayers to God for us. Moreover, when the veil of reality is pulled back, we are shown a glimpse of what is going on in that world of which the so-called “ordinary” functioning of our senses cannot perceive. What is happening is that those living in the heavenly realm are praying for us and, more specifically, as relates to our feast today the Mother of God is – praying for us, protecting us, interceding for us to Christ.

Throughout the Old and New Testament Scriptures, we find her to be prophesied about and praised. From the New Testament onwards, we see and experience the many ways in which she protects and intercedes for us. Now let us see how this is so.

  1. The greatest of Old Testament saints did not receive the fullness of the promise because of their sin

    Many people tend to see and imagine that all people throughout time must be at least as equally sinful as them and are therefore on equal footing with all people before God. Whether it be Moses and Peter or King David and Mary Magdalene, all are no better or no worse than the other. Although we read in the Scriptures that pauper and king alike will all stand before the Great Judgment Seat of God, while this is true, the difference between them is what each person has done with the grace God has given them.

    Therefore, in contradiction to this notion, let us recall that only Moses was chosen to lead the people of Israel in the wilderness and to receive the tablets of the law and write the history of creation and the world. Also, about whom else can it be said that they are a man after God’s own heart, as is said of the Prophet-King David (1 Samuel 13:14). Moreover, who is wiser than Solomon? (1 Kings 4:29-34).

    However, higher than all is Mary, the Mother of God. For although Moses was chosen to lead the Israelites, he was barred from the Promised Land only being allowed to gaze on it due to a single incident of disobedience (Cf. Numbers 20:1-12). Although Lot and his family were spared from the destruction of Sodom, his wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back on the city in disobedience (Cf. Genesis 19:17-26). Moreover, although Samson, who was set apart and consecrated by God while still in the womb, whose birth was announced by an angel and who performed many wonders, was abandoned by God due to his union with a harlot (Judges 16).

    The greatness and the abundant gifts of grace of each of these holy men did not guarantee their reception of the fullness of the promises given to them and yet in the fullness of time, a virgin is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and conceives a son, Emmanual, God with us, for she surpassed all of them in greatness, gifts, and grace.

    Of Mary, the Mother of God, the Theotokos we see the truth of her prophesy when she says, “from henceforth, all generation shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). This they do because of who was born to her but may we also note, and not overlook that where the Patriarch Moses, the Prophet-King David, Sampson, the Prophet Moses fell short, Mary did not and therefore was granted to become the Mother of God.

  2. Old Testament Prophesies about the Mother of God

    Because of her virginity and the genuine beauty which is borne within her as the result of virtue, Mary became the Mother of God, as prophesied throughout the Old Testament and chanted of in the divine services. Just as the Gospel writers interpret the prophecy of Isaiah for us, calling to our attention the virgin who would give birth to the Messiah, so also are we shown throughout the Old Testament Patriarchs and Prophets the honor that is due to the Mother of God.

    The images which pre-figure her are a picture of her soul. They are prophecies of her virginity and of her purity, which indicate the type of person who will hold God in her womb; as the unburnt bush she holds within herself the fire of divinity without being burned whereas Isaiah, in God’s presence, is almost come undone and Moses shelters himself from God in the cleft of a rock for he cannot see God’s face and live.

    She is the rod, of which Isaiah speaks, from whom sprung forth Christ the branch (Is. 11:1);
    She is the rock, declares Moses, from whence gushes the fountain of life (Ex. 17:6);
    She is the bush which is burned by the fire of divinity, states Moses elsewhere, but is not consumed or harmed (Ex. 3:2);
    She is the East Gate, says Ezekiel, through which only the Great Priest can enter (Eze. 44:1-3)

    As Anatolios, the author of part of the service which commemorates the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement of the conception of Christ by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, writes, and we chant: “The captain of heaven (Archangel Gabriel) was sent to the living Pavilion of the Glory, to make ready an everlasting Dwelling for the Maker. And coming before her he cried:

    “Hail, fiery throne, more glorious by far than the living creatures with four faces.
    “Hail, thou Seat of the King of Heaven,
    “Hail, uncut mountain and precious vessel.
    “For in thee the whole fullness of the Godhead has come to dwell bodily, by the good pleasure of the everlasting Father, and by the joint operation of the Holy Spirit. Hail, thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee.”[1]

    For the feast which honors the birth of Mary, we chant,

    “Inspired by God, the divine choir (ie. the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament) spoke of thee in prophecy as the Mountain, the Gate of heaven, and the spiritual Ladder: for out of thee was hewn a stone, not cut by hand of man; and thou art the gate through which passed the Lord of wonders, the God of our fathers”[2]

    For the feast of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple we chant,

    “The Law prefigured thee most wonderfully as tabernacle, jar of manna, strange ark, veil of the temple, rod of Aaron, temple never to be destroyed, and gate of God; and so it teaches us to cry to thee: O pure Virgin, thou art truly high above all.”[3]

    Moreover, as a tree is known by its fruits, how could the sinless Lord Jesus be born to someone who is not pure for the Holy dwells in holy ones?

    John the Baptist demonstrates this when he speaks of his unworthiness even to loose the latchet from Christ’s shoe (John 1:28) although Christ said that John the Baptist was the greatest among men.

    Her purity and holiness in relation to Christ are clearly expressed in the Psalmist where it is written:

    Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house; So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him... The king’s daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold. She shall be brought unto the king in raiment of needlework: the virgins her companions that follow her shall be brought unto thee… I will make thy name to be remembered in all generations: therefore shall the people praise thee for ever and ever. (Ps. 45:10, 11, 13, 14, 16)

    For this reason, St. John Damascene can say about the Mother of God,

    She grew up in the house of God, nourished by the Spirit, and like a fruitful olive tree became the abode of every virtue with her mind removed from every worldly and carnal desire. And thus, as was fitting for her who was to conceive God within herself, she kept her soul and body virginal, for He is holy and abides in holy ones.[4]

    And even more explicitly, St. Gregory Palamas writes,

    “God was not just born among men, but born of a holy and pure virgin or, more precisely, of this exceedingly pure and most holy of virgins who was not only above any physical stain, but far beyond the reach of any defiled, carnal thoughts.”[5]
The Interpretation of Luke 11:27-28

But, someone may ask, what about Christ’s answer to the woman who praises His mother? It as though, being amazed with His teaching, she shouts out, “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps that thou hast sucked.” He responds saying, “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:27-28) which is not a rejection of His mother but instead is an affirmation because she did first hear the word of God and kept it and therefore became the Mother of God.

Conclusion

Who is this who prays for us?

It is she to whom the Archangel spoke, whom the Holy Spirit overshadowed, and from whose virginal womb the fullness of the Godhead was born in the flesh, taking His flesh from her.
It is she about whom her cousin proclaimed, “Blessed are you among women” to which she prophesied, “From henceforth, all generation shall call me blessed” (Cf. Luke 1:42, 48).
It is she who is the rod of Aaron who miraculously sprouted forth Christ;
It is she who is the unburnt bush, not singed by the divinity;
It is she who is the East Gate the only gate through which the Great Priest came.
It is she who prays to Christ for you and by the grace given to her, protects you and shelters you.

And may she protect each and everyone one of us from the snares of the Devil and protect the whole Church of Christ in these difficult times.

Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.


[1] Verses for Litya for The Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos. All citations about the divine services are from The Festal Menaion, Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware trans. (Souh Canaan: St. Tikon’s Seminary Press, 1998)
[2] Irmos of the First Canon of Canticle Seven of Matins for The Birth of Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos.
[3] Irmos of the First Canon of Canticle Nine of Matins for The Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple, cf. Exodus 26:1, 16:33, 25:10; Matthew 27:51; Hebrews 10:20; Numbers 17:8; 1 Kings 8:13; John 2:9; Ezekiel 44:1-3.
[4] An Exact Exposition of the Ortodox Faith, Book 4, Ch. 14.
[5]“On the Entry of the Mother of God into the Holy of Holies I” in Mary the Mother of God: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas, Christopher Veniamin, ed. (Essex: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2005), 12.




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