Sermon for the Protection of the Theotokos (2017)
Since our entry into the Orthodox Church—that is, since our unification to the very Body of Christ through Holy Baptism or Chrismation—Christ and His Holy Spirit have come to dwell within the depths of our hearts, together with the Father.
The saints teach us this incredible reality and grace of God; satan is dethroned from our hearts, and is cast out from our midst, able only now to tempt us from the outside; and Christ is seated once again as rightful King upon His throne, the human heart.
The Apostle Paul teaches that: “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable!” Once Christ implants Himself within our hearts, He is there forever, no matter what we do, no matter how much we sin, or give in to our passions—He is always buried and hidden within the depths of our hearts! Even though much effort, time and grace are needed to uncover Him again.
This is a great reality! Christ is buried within our hearts! St. Paul rebukes the Corinthians, and through them us also: “Know ye not your own selves, that Jesus Christ is in you?!” “Know ye not that you are the temple of the Holy Spirit?” Christ is closer to us than our own breath; Christ is more near to us than our own thoughts and feelings. Therefore, why is it that we do not understand this? Because we are far from our own selves, and we have wandered away from this reality which is buried deep within the heart, covering Him up with much sin.
If we were baptized as an infant, we may have never been told about this great reality. Or, if we were grafted into the Body of Christ later on, we might have wandered far away from this first love, that glorious illumination, joy and grace—which is the Kingdom of heaven—which shown forth from within us on the day of our Baptism or Chrismation.
Adam and Eve were created in communion with the Holy Spirit; He was a natural part of their life; but they could be disunited from Him. They were in a state of purity, peace and holy illumination. The devil could only tempt from the outside through images and thoughts. But when they listened to him, and strayed away from God, and they sinned, then the grace of God fled from them, and they were committed to live a fallen life, subject to the passions, and they became enslaved to the cruel will of the devil.
We have all inherited this curse, this disease—the disease of mortality, death, passion, suffering and strong inclination to sin. However, even in this state of wretchedness, the saints of the Old Testament still were able to follow God with all of their heart; the Mother of God being the greatest example. But, the devil, death, hades and sin could not be overcome until Christ became the New Adam, suffered, descended into hades, and rose again from the dead. Even the Mother of God needed a Savior; and she herself was indeed the first to receive the salvation of Christ.
When He completed His earthly Dispensation, and ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, then He sent down the Holy Spirit again, straight into the hearts of the Apostles and disciples; and the Church was founded on earth.
Men entered into communion with the Church through the preaching of the Apostles and the enlightenment of the Lord, and they were baptized into Christ, thus receiving all of the grace of His incarnate dispensation. Then the Apostles laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. And after this they were fed the Divine Body and Blood of God, Christ our Savior, continuing night and day in the communion and doctrine of the Apostles.
This Church continues until today. Every one of us who has been baptized or chrismated, and has entered into this selfsame Church, has put on Christ. We have died with Christ, been buried with Him, and we have risen with Him. Satan has been expelled, we have received the grace of purity, sinlessness, and immortality; and Christ has been implanted within the depths of our hearts!
But why does evil still torment us? Why do we still sin? Why do passions afflict us—maybe even much more than before we entered into the Church? How is it that we who possess such a treasure have squandered it and have been consumed again by many passions and sins?
Satan is cast out, but he can still tempt us—through the senses, through memories, through past experiences; he reminds us of all the supposed pleasures of sin that we used to enjoy; he plays upon our emotions; he enkindles lust and vanity within us; he puffs us up with spiritual delusion; he draws us away from the depths of our hearts; and very soon, we who have received new life through baptism—and countless times through holy confession and absolution—we follow his lies and tricks, and soon we might find ourselves twice as wretched as before. And we, who were renewed to a state of divine illumination as Adam and Eve enjoyed before they fell, are brought down into sin, darkness and death again.
Even so, Christ has not forsaken us. The Beloved Apostle proclaims: “Greater is He Who is in you than he that is in the world!” Christ is still closer to us than we our to our own selves, so to say. But how can we who have wandered so far away from true life ever find it again?
When we are stricken with sorrows, pain, suffering of body or soul; when our sins have overtaken us, and when we come to despair; when we feel abandoned by God and men; when we are afflicted by our own passions and by the piercing attacks of the demons; and when we have stubbornly kicked against God’s good-will, isolated ourselves and have wandered astray into spiritual death and hell—
Then, when all hope is lost, and all we have is the slightest turning of our thoughts and hearts to heaven, seeking wordlessly the salvation of Christ, then it is that we should and must turn to His Mother. In the Old Testament, we often see the righteous interceding for the sinners.
God was going to destroy all of his people—who, right while Moses was bringing to them the divine tablets of God’s word written by the very finger of God, made themselves a golden calf and blasphemously worshipped it as the god who delivered them from Egypt—when God, seeing this great apostasy of His people wanted to blot them out of life, both earthly and eternal, then Moses interceded for them, begging God to spare His people; and God listened.
How much greater boldness does the spotless Mother of God have before the very Son Whom she bore. God has the most profound respect for His Mother; because, by her free-will offering and assent to God’s desire to become Man and save us, by her word: “May it be done unto me according to Thy word”—because of this, God was able to freely act as He wanted to, becoming Man through her. She has lent the whole of herself to God, and thus was chosen to become His Mother. How much respect God has for His Mother!
But no amount of philosophizing, theological speculations, arguments or proof-texts, none of these are strong enough to teach us the great and powerful protection and intercession of the Mother of God, as much as living experience can.
When we are strained by every passion, when we give in to every sin, when we feel the isolation of hell—on account of cutting off God and everyone from our life—when we have no one to speak to, no one to trust, and no one to whom we can fully unburden the great weight of our guilt and spiritual affliction—for words cannot express the great weight of our burdensome sins—when we find ourselves in this circumstance, then we must call out to the Mother of God for help.
“O Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” “O Mother of God, I have no other help but thee! Help me as thou wilt!” This is the cry of both the desperate man, and of the child. We are children of the Mother of God, and brothers and sisters of her Son, as it says in Scripture. Not by any virtue of our own are we found to be kinsmen of God Incarnate and of His Mother, but only by the great love and mercy of Christ Who has come down to us that He might raise us to heaven, He “Who is not ashamed to call us His brethren”, and Who gives the power to become sons of God to those who trust in His name.
When our sinful burdens and our overwhelming passions are crushing us, stifling us, suffocating us and killing us; and when our prayers do not seem to rise out of our bosom; when heaven’s face seems like a brass wall, and God’s grace is only a painful memory; then, if we call out to the Mother of God, we will soon find deliverance.
It is not that she is more merciful than God, or that she has some sort of pre-eminence above her Son—this is impossible! But, just as God can give us physical life without the mediation of the sun; yet has chosen to create the sun as a means of giving us physical life, so too, He has chosen that we receive His eternal life and blessings through His most pure Mother, our Protectress, Mediatress, Deliveress and Intercessor.
Just as it was through her that Christ became Man, and came to save us; so too now, it is through her that we receive God’s grace. When Christ became incarnate, it was through her mediation; and now, seeking to make living and active the grace of His incarnation within us, it is through His Mother’s intercessions. We first received God as a Man through her; it is because of her spotless flesh and spirit which she offered to God that God became a Man; therefore, it is through her that we receive Christ’s flesh and blood.
We are baptized into Christ Who has died and rose again for us in the very body which she supplied Him; therefore, it is through her mediation that we receive the kingdom of heaven; and it is likewise through her that we again find this heaven of the heart when we wander away in sin.
In the 8th chapter of the 3rd book of Kings (known as the 1st book of Kings in most English translations), after righteous King Solomon has the first temple built, he prays to God that He would bless and save all of those who turn to God through His temple; he prayed:
Will God indeed dwell with men on the earth? If the heaven and heaven of heavens will not suffice Thee, how much less will this house that I have built to Thy name? Yet Thou, O LORD God of Israel, shalt have respect unto my supplication, to hearken unto the prayer which Thy servant maketh unto Thee before Thee this day; that Thine eyes may be open toward this house day and night even toward the place whereof Thou hast said, “My name shall be there”…
And Thou shalt hearken unto the prayer of Thy servant and of Thy people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place; and Thou shalt hear in Thy dwelling-place in heaven, and Thou shalt do, and be gracious…
When Thy people Israel falleth before the enemy, because they shall sin against Thee, and shall turn again to Thee, and confess Thy name, and pray and make supplication in this house; then shalt Thou hear from heaven, and be merciful unto the sins of Thy people Israel…
If their enemy oppress them in one of their cities, with every occurrence, every trouble…every prayer, every supplication whatsoever shall be made by any man, as they shall know each the plague of his heart, and spread forth his hands toward this house; then shalt Thou hear out of heaven…and be merciful…
If they sin against Thee (for there is no man that will not sin), and Thou bring them, and deliver them up before their enemies, and they that take them captive carry them unto a land far or near; and they turn their hearts in the land whither they have been carried captives…and they return unto Thee with all their heart, and with all their soul…and pray unto Thee toward…the house which I have built for Thy name; then shalt Thou hear out of heaven…and shalt be merciful to their unrighteousness, wherein they have trespassed against Thee.
God heard Solomon’s prayer; therefore, if God saved those who would pray unto Him toward the inanimate building of the first holy temple, how much more will He hear us who pray unto Him toward His animate temple, His truest dwelling-place, throne, ark, altar and house, His Mother?
She is the truest temple of God; yet we too are called His temple. There is no contradiction here; we, through her, have been built into the living temple of redeemed mankind, the Church, which is founded upon the Chief Cornerstone, Christ God, Who founded the Church upon the rock of His incarnation.
It is all too easy to forget that first and foremost we ourselves are the temple and Church of God—not made by the hands of man—and that this building made by the hands of man is only called “church” because of us who are gathered together here to worship Christ and to be ever-transformed more and more into His Body through Holy Communion.
This feast of the Holy Protection of the Mother of God was revealed to the holy fool-for-Christ St. Andrew, and his disciple. It is through him that we have received the revelation of the Mother of God’s constant protection, careful vigilance and intercession over the Church. He beheld this vision in the 9th century, but the reality which was seen by him has been happening ever since the Mother of God was taken to heaven after her holy Dormition.
This feast is a continuation and magnification of the feast of the Dormition. As it was that then, the Apostles were gathered around the Mother of God on earth, representing the whole earthly Church, and were joined by the heavenly Church—Christ with His angels—so now, it is that those same Apostles, together with all of the angels, prophets, hierarchs and righteous ones who have gone before us, come together with the Mother of God from heaven—again, the Church of heaven comes to join the Church on earth.
Just as the Apostles were seen to be on earth at the time of the Virgin’s Dormition, and are now seen to be in heaven with her; so too, we are granted great hope that we also, who now stand as the Church on earth, and are joined together invisibly with the Mother of God and all of the angels and saints—the Church of heaven—will also, by the grace of God and the prayer of His Mother, be added to this Church of heaven forever. We are not just existing here on this earth as some sort of organization, but we are being prepared and built into an eternal heavenly temple in which God shall mystically dwell forever in unspeakable joy!
As the Scriptures say, “we, as living stones, are being built together into the living temple of God, which is founded upon the Prophets and Apostles, with Christ as Its Chief Cornerstone!” The holy and animate temple of God is first and foremost, and forever, uniquely, the Mother of God; but her Son came to dwell within her so that He might build us also into this eternal temple! He has broadened and continues to broaden the borders of His Church! This is an undeniable reality! And no amount of sin can destroy this truth, as long as we continually seek repentance and grace.
If we call to the Mother of God with all of our heart, even amidst the most fearsome storms of hatred and sin; even amidst our lawless defiance and hatred towards God; even amidst the most despairing time of our life; even when we are completely deformed by sin and feel ourselves already committed to the depths of hell—then, if we call upon the Mother of God with simplicity, humility, faith and all our heart, she will quickly hear us, help us and heal us. She will quickly teach us again to realize that we are the temple of the living God, and to live in accordance with this truth.
When we call out to her, we will find that she is not far from us; but that she manifests her grace and beauty within us; she will set up a calm and peaceful refuge right inside of our hearts. She will manifest to us the riches buried there. She will take us by the hand, she will swallow up all of our pain, she will cleanse all of our bitterness, she will deliver us from every sinful inclination and slavery; she will transform our hearts from wickedness and hatred to love for God and every man.
She will show us, and grant us to taste the spiritual honey which is flowing within our hearts from her Son Who is hidden there. This is how she protects us, helps us and intercedes for us. She will cut off our every affliction, she will purify us from every evil thought and attitude; she will fill us to overflowing with grace and love; she will manifest the truth that her Son is still buried in our midst, and has not forsaken us.
When she takes us by the hand, and leads us to this kingdom of heaven within us, we will have no amount of tears or words or gracious feelings or hymns of praise which could thank her worthily. Then our hearts will be crushed—not by passion, sin and death—but by sweet compunction of heart on account of the great long-suffering of God and of His great love, mercy, goodness and forgiveness which has found us worthy of repentance and new life through the mediation of His all-blessed Mother.
To Him, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, together with His Father and the Holy Spirit, be all worship, honor and glory, and to His most pure Mother, our Protectress and Intercessor, be hymns of thanksgiving and magnification unto the ages of ages. Amen.
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