A hymn to the Mother of God
O strange wonder which was brought to pass at august Blachernae in Byzantium of old through her who alone brought forth our Lord and Fashioner without taint and incorrupt! For she spread out her most sacred and holy veil, protecting the pious flock and filling all with her heavenly gifts of grace; and she calleth all together, in divine delight to cry: Rejoice, thou Protection who protectest every faithful soul. (from the October Menaion, translation by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Massachusettes, 2005, p.5)
Since this Sunday, October 14th, on the old calendar is the feast of The Holy Protection of our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary this post will begin with a sermon for this commemoration.
Holy Protection Sermon
Beloved of God, in this feast we celebrate today we gratefully remember our Sovereign Lady Theotokos as an intercessor for us before God. Together with the angelic powers and all the saints she ever prays for us. She is the highest of all creation, she is at the right hand of Christ our God and so her intercessory power is greater than all. Therefore let us speak today about the Theotokos as our intercessor. Let us consider how this intercessory power of the Theotokos came to be and where it began. Although she has become sanctified beyond all created beings in that she is the Mother of God and is therefore our foremost intercessor, she is still one of us. The Theotokos is a human being and this her intercessory power is not something that just happened to her as though she was a passive mechanical instrument, but this was something she struggled to develop, an act of synergy with God Who crowned her efforts; for she was still made out of the same raw material as we are. She was born as a human just as we are, she was born as one among the race of Adam, she is a daughter of Eve, Eve who was a fallen creature.
The position of the Theotokos as our intercessor began with her life in the Temple. Her life there was ascetic and contemplative, a life tempered by prayer, fasting, and study of the Holy Scriptures. This is what we learn from early Christian literature that scholars refer to as the Protoevangelion of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Various holy fathers referred to these sources and wrote of her life in the Temple, such as Sts. Jerome and George of Nicomedia, Blessed Theophylact and St. Gregory Palamas. And it was especially St. Gregory who spoke in detail of her time in the Temple. He affirms it was at that time, through hearing the Holy Scriptures that the Theotokos began to understand the catastrophe of Adam’s fall. She understood the growing distortion of our being through sin and the need of a Savior to heal the effects of sin upon our human nature. She mourned over man’s loss of paradise and our state of separation from God which she also experienced as a daughter of Adam.
She had both a personal and universal repentance. Her personal repentance however, was not a repentance for a sin committed. No! She never sinned! Rather it was a process of ascending from one state of purification and enlightenment to another. And her universal repentance was a mourning and intercessory prayer for the fallen race of Adam. And this is quite natural, it is perfectly human, because man exists as a community of being and this is an aspect of being created in the image and after the likeness of God. God is Trinity, three yet one, singular yet pluralistic, three Persons, yet one in Essence. God is love, a community of being united in love, existing in love, effecting all things in love. And so each of us, in our human nature in the image of our Trinitarian God, exists as a person of a common substance or essence with every other human being while at the same time possessing our own particular, personal being or substance. Man exists as many persons which are consubstantial with one another.
The tradition of our Church teaches that each individual through ascetic struggles strives to ascend in the likeness of God so as to become a pure vessel of the grace of God. One struggles to become a “God-bearer”; a living repository of the Holy Spirit. Although this is the aim of the ascetic endeavors the Church puts forth for us, there is also another transformation that man experiences through ascetic endeavors. For man, although many persons, yet being created in God’s image is a single whole, man is singular yet pluralistic, man’s state of existence is community of being, not individual or in division from each other but a community of one essence meant to exist in relationship with one another, as the New Testament teaches us we are one body, the Body of Christ, members of one another . It is to this knowledge that our ascetic efforts and personal repentance leads us because it is what we are, it is what we were created as. Personal repentance leads one to the experience of the communal property of man’s nature. It cannot be otherwise because it is what we are, and this leads one to intercession in the form of universal repentance. This then, must have been the experience of the Theotokos, because she is one of us, she is a human being, a daughter of Adam.
So then, the Theotokos, in choosing the good part as Mary of Bethany in the Gospel of this feast, gave herself over to an ascetic life from early childhood, and thus she perfected her human nature as far as possible. The fruit of this was the understanding of the ontological unity of all mankind, and the understanding of the catastrophe of the fall and the need of a Savior. She had pity on us and loved us and because of this love she became our intercessor. And now that she is in the kingdom of heaven, her love for us is brought to a surpassing degree, and such love is made complete or perfected by the grace of the Holy Spirit both in this life and hereafter. As the Scriptures testify, “God is Love” and “he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God and God in him” (IJohn 4:8, 16). Therefore the Mother of God, now more than ever, fervently intercedes for us before her Son and our God, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Through the intercessions of His most pure Mother may our Lord Jesus Christ lead us through this process of personal and universal repentance, and then He will recognize us as one of His Own and will receive us into His heavenly kingdom unto the ages of ages. Amen.
As personal repentance is a subject raised in the above sermon it should be now dealt with in a little more detail. Personal repentance is the repentance of any given individual offered God for himself. So now it is necessary to speak of repentance, and to do so I will begin by quoting an introduction from a book on St. Seraphim, In the Footsteps of a Saint.
Central to the Christian life is ongoing repentance, and the saints are those who repent thoroughly and completely. Repentance in the Orthodox Church has various shades of meanings. The Greek word “metanoia” literally means a change of mind, implying what the holy Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: “be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The equivalent word in Slavonic – “pokaianie” – implies to be wretched, to mourn and lament – to be filled with tears. In conjunction with the disposition of one’s heart, and effort of free will, this “spirit of repentance” acts in varying degrees. In some people it acts temporarily according to the sins they have committed. There is confession, the resolve to change, remorse, and maybe some act of penance. However, in others this “spirit of repentance” acts systematically, remaining upon one, leading him from one degree of purification to another. Then, continuing on, this “spirit” – which is an action of the grace of God – leads one from one degree of enlightenment to another. Perhaps we could presume to say that the latter is what the Apostle Paul wrote of to the Corinthians: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the Lord” (IICor. 3:18). [p.3]
This ongoing repentance which acts systematically in a man is expressed in prayer. Prayer is the expression of the relationship that exists between two reason-endowed personal beings. By two reason-endowed personal beings it is God the Creator of all and His creature man that we are speaking of. Prayer has a connection with theology. This is because theology speaks of the relationship that exists between God and man. Man was man “in the image and after the likeness of God” (Gen. 1:26), yet this was distorted by the sin of our first-parents, Adam and Eve. In listening to the serpent they were deceived and disobeyed the commandment of God. So they offended God and fell away from the life that they knew in paradise. They distorted the original beauty of their resemblance to God and fragmented their relationship with Him. As time progressed and generations of men have come and gone, sin has multiplied, the distortion of our original beauty has been augmented, and the same is true for our relationship with God.
God has not changed His attitude towards us, but we have sinned and distorted both our being and our relationship with God. God continues to be Who He is—Love. As we know, “God sent his Son to be the atonement for our sins” (IJohn 4:10). God continues to deal with us in utter love although we have offended Him. So now, how do we approach God and respond to this? Our subject at hand gives us the answer: We approach God in repentance, we offer Him ongoing, systematic repentance.
Repentance can be ongoing when we consider all the above. The prayers of our Church, especially the evening prayers and canons of repentance, give us a model to follow. And there are several of the hymns from the Akathist to the Elders of Optina that offer us outstanding instruction in this, they are as follows:
Understanding with heart and mind that no man living can be justified before God by his own works, and ever keeping before your eyes your own sins, ye did not cease to pour forth streams of tears, seen by the Lord alone, offering Him repentance of soul, the image whereof ye have shown to us.
Considering yourselves to be the worst of men and in nowise deserving mercy, O saints, ye saw the power of the redemptive suffering of Christ as the only sure hope of salvation; and therefore, with great humility and thankfulness, ye ever cried to God: Alleluia!
Possessing within your hearts the divine gift of humble-mindedness, O true disciples of Christ Who humbled Himself even to death on the Cross, ye considered all your ascetic feats and labors as naught; for as your struggles increased, so did your humility grow apace. (Book of Akathists II, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY, pp. 414-5)
May our Lord Jesus Christ help us to follow in their footsteps, taking up an interior Cross of heartfelt repentance in painful prayer which can lead us from “one degree of purification to another” and continuing to “one degree of enlightenment to another” so that “putting aside the old man we may be clad with the new”*; through the prayers of His most pure Mother, the Optina Elders and all the saints. Amen.
* This last is a quote from the Prayer of St. Basil the Great which ends the Ninth Hour. (from The Horologion, translation by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY, p. 180)