Become as Little Children: A Sermon on the Protection of the Theotokos (2021)

Become as Little Children: A Sermon on the Protection of the Theotokos (2021) - Holy Cross Monastery

We celebrate today the Feast of Pokrov — the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God — with great faith and heartfelt joy. Though not numbered among the Twelve Great Feasts, nevertheless it is kept as one of the chief and most beloved feast-days of the entire Church year. Most of us are familiar with the story of the feast’s origins in the 10th century: the imperial city of Constantinople was threatened by an invading fleet of pagan barbarians, and so the people gathered together in the Church of Blachernae near the city gates for an all night vigil to pray for deliverance. Among those praying were St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ and his disciple St. Epiphanius, and during the vigil the two saints beheld the Mother of God, along with St. John the Forerunner and other saints and angels, appear in the midst of the church. The heavenly choir prayed in the church for a long time, and after the Mother of God wept many tears She then removed Her veil and spread it over the congregation as a sign of Her heavenly protection. And through Her intercessions, the city was spared.

Of course, the feast we celebrate today is not merely a remembrance of a single historical event that happened a thousand years ago and halfway around the world. No, we celebrate today the Protection of the Mother of God that extends over all the children of God throughout all ages, and over each and every one of us in particular. For St. Andrew, in beholding the vision, turned to St. Epiphanius and asked: "Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?"

Yet this does not mean that the historical event itself is unimportant. On the contrary: it is only by meditating on the original event which inspired and gave rise to this festal celebration that we can truly enter into its spirit, and learn all the lessons which it is able to impart. For instance, it is very instructive that the feast today tends to be given far more honor and importance in the Slavic churches rather than the Greek, despite the fact that it was the Greek city of Constantinople which was spared from invasion by the still-pagan Rus barbarians. From this we can learn that the enemy against whom we stand most in need of the Mother of God’s protection is our own former selves, the “old man” whom we crucified in Holy Baptism yet who still wars against us as long as we are in this earthly life.

And we can learn, too, that our first and foremost response to any threat or adversity which we encounter in our lives — whether spiritual or temporal — must absolutely be fervent and heartfelt prayer in the Church of Christ. The city’s inhabitants cast off all common sense and earthly reasoning and spent the night not in bolstering the defenses, not in preparing for battle, not in resting in preparation for a fight for their homes and their lives, but in prayer. And they did not simply pray at home, in private or in passing; no, they gathered together and for many long hours in the temple of God. But as for us: when trials and temptations befall us, when we are faced with various obstacles and difficulties, when all the world seems to be crumbling around us, what do we do? Do we not so often choose to fret and worry, to grow angry or anxious, or to busy ourselves with any number of efforts to solve all our problems on our own? Let it not be so among us. Let us instead be imitators of the wise Christians who have gone before us, and run first of all to church and fall down before the Lord Jesus Christ, before His Mother, and before His saints. For there is no threat nor danger which they cannot overcome, just as there is no threat nor danger which we ourselves can overcome without them.

But after having first given ourselves over to prayer with our whole hearts, we must by no means neglect also to do our own small part in things. For the inhabitants of Constantinople still fought off the invading barbarians after the vigil; they still chose to freely lay down their own lives to defend that which they held dear. And so we too must be willing to lay down our own lives for the sake of our families, our fellow Christians, and even those among us who may still be quite far from the Kingdom of God. The life of a Christian consists precisely in prayer and in sacrifice, for it is in prayer and sacrifice that we meet the crucified Christ.

In our meditation on the historic account of this feast, we must not neglect to consider also the events which were still to come. For though the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God saved Constantinople from invasion a thousand years ago, yet we know that the day nevertheless eventually did come when the city finally fell. Does this mean that four centuries later the Mother of God became unable to protect the people of God, or that She no longer wished to protect them? Of course not. But it does mean that our prayers will not always be answered in the way that we desire, or in the way that we think best. And so we must all resolve to have firm and unshakeable faith that no matter what happens in our lives, in our Church, in our nation, or in our world, that the Mother of God is still watching over us, She is still protecting us, She is still entreating Her Son to arrange absolutely everything in the way He alone knows can best lead us to our eternal salvation and our heavenly home. Even if it doesn’t make any sense to us. Even if it appears that all has been lost. There is no conceivable tragedy which has the power to triumph over the Providence of God or the Protection of His Mother — as long as we ourselves do not voluntarily forsake them and flee. And for proof of that, for proof that even the worst possible tragedy — when met with faith — can be transformed into the very doorway to Heaven, we need look no further than the Cross that stands aloft every church and hangs around each one of our necks.

How can we acquire such faith, the faith that can move mountains, the faith that alone can make all of us into saints? It is really quite simple, and the Lord has already told us in the Gospel: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Sometimes we hear this verse and think that it means we must become totally purified, as little children are pure. But though without doubt we are all called to purity, nevertheless some of the Holy Fathers remind us that being a small child is by no means a guarantee of purity, and even a tiny infant can be quite passionate and selfish at times. So what did Christ mean? Quite simply, He meant that we must all imitate the humble and trusting faith that little children have in their parents as they run to them with every problem, knowing that no matter what has happened, their father and mother will make everything right.

So let it be with each and every one us. No matter what happens in our lives, let us immediately run with humble faith and unwavering hope beneath the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos, crying out to Her fervently with the words of today’s troparion: "Encompass us beneath the precious veil of Thy protection; deliver us from every form of evil by entreating Christ, Thy Son and our God, that He may save our souls." Amen.

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