Sermon on The Nativity of the Theotokos

A Hymn to the Theotokos

Thy Nativity, O Theotokos Virgin, hath proclaimed joy to all the world; for from thee hath dawned the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, annulling the curse and bestowing a blessing, abolishing death and granting us life eternal.  (Tropar of The Nativity of the Theotokos, trans. Prayer Book, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY, p.157)   

Sermon on The Nativity of the Theotokos

Today we celebrate the birth of our Lady, the Theotokos.  She Who was to become the Mother of our God is born today; and thus today begins the preparation of the living Temple, or the living Ark of our God.  She was, of course, a Temple of God in the highest sense because she carried God within her in physically. Having been brought to the Temple of the Old Law she led a strict ascetic life from an early age.  She was sanctified far beyond all other created beings, and thus she was prepared to become the Tabernacle of God.  At the time of the Annunciation, she was found to be already full of grace; and in this way did the Archangel Gabriel greet her, calling her Full of Grace.

Each of us, too, is called to be a temple of God, and the Apostle Paul makes this pointing his first epistle to the Corinthians, when he writes. “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (ICor 3.16)  But how can we have this as a reality in our lives, that is, to be a living temple of God?  How can this become something that we clearly perceive in our lives?  This is something which we shall try to answer today.

So I want to make some reference to a talk given by Archimandrite Zachariah of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in England.  In speaking about how far we are from God he quotes the Prophet Isaiah (55.8-9) and says:

Our thoughts are as far from the thoughts of God, and our ways are as far from the ways of God as heaven is from earth; there is nothing common. This is why St. Paul says the same thing—that the Gospel of Christ is not by the measure of man, because it is not given by man, but by the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Gal. 1.11-12).  Therefore we must crucify our carnal mind in order to receive the mind of Christ, and this is the beauty of repentance.  When we repent and we practice the commandment of the Lord, we crucify our carnal mind and our self-confidence. We do not put our trust in ourselves, but in Him who is able to raise even the dead.

Fr. Zachariah then goes on to tell us something about the Hesychast tradition of the Church:

The hesychastic tradition is the heart of our tradition; that through the invocation of the name of Christ we can acquire perfect healing.

This initial comment of his is very unique and profound.  I have often heard the hesychastic tradition and the use of the Jesus Prayer presented as a means of acquiring grace, contemplation, and as an ascent to God; but never as the way to “acquire perfect healing”.  Continuing Father says:

In our normal fallen state our mind is diffused in all the created world. We must repent in order to bring the mind back to us and reunite it with the heart, so that we can find wholeness and completeness. When our mind is reunited with the heart, then we can turn our whole being to God, then we can reach the level demanded by the commandments of Christ—to love God with all our heart and all our being.  In our normal state we cannot fulfill this great commandment properly because we have one thought in our mind, another desire in our heart, another feeling in our senses; we are divided.  But when through repentance all our life is concentrated in our heart and from there turns to God, then we fulfill the commandments.

At the time when we return to our heart with our true repentance we become in control of our whole being.  Even in our ordinary life, in times of contrition, when we pray with contrition, no alien thought comes near us.  The whole of our mind is in the words we utter to God if we really pray with tears and contrition.  And the fathers say we rule over being, we possess our being, when our mind is reunited with our heart.  Then our heart becomes the very body of our body, that is to say, all our being is concentrated in our heart.  So when the mind is reunited with the heart we have found healing. We are then able to fulfill the commandments of God in a manner befitting Him.

So this is what our struggle should be: to have our mind in our natural state. St. Symeon the New Theologians says that salvation is to bring the mind into its natural state. There is a paradise within us, and we can enter into that paradise even in this life. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov says that before the fall the mind of Adam was united with his heart, and he insists that this is what paradise was.  But as a result of the fall this union of mind and heart was broken and man lost his free communication with God.

Therefore we need to cultivate this state, just as the Theotokos did when, as an infant she resolved to dedicate her whole life to God.  And I said “she resolved”, because it is written that when she was brought to the Temple by her parents she ran up the steps of the Temple without looking back at them.  This is something that surprised both the priests and her parents because it would have been natural for a child of that age to look back.  So, she then withdrew from the world and nourished her soul with the things of God, the Scriptures and the worship of the Temple.  She was not only a hearer, but also a doer of God’s word.  Thus she prepared herself to be a dwelling place of God.  But how do we move in this direction? 

Well, today, let us simply speak about things that can be counterproductive to such a state.  The Apostle Paul says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:3), and he instructs us, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2).  Furthermore, he warns us, “to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.  Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom 8:7-8)  Again he says “be renewed in the spirit of your mind; put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:23-4).  And the Apostle John the Theologian is more to the point and clear in writing, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1John 2:15).

So we need to take heed to ourselves, to be careful not to become a victim of this world, and a captive to its fascinations.  Since by so doing, we do not even allow God’s grace to become active within us.  And if we do happen to have had the experience of the grace of God, we will lose it.  We will grieve the Holy Spirit.  So let us be careful of becoming a victim of the world.  We need to listen to the words of the Apostle Peter: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (IPet. 5:8).

One of the prime ways in which the devil seeks to devour us was revealed to a disciple of St. Paisius Velichkovsky.  After the death of St. Paisius his disciple Sophronius succeeded him as abbot.  One morning, when he went to the main gate of the monastery a little before Matins, he saw a frightful looking demon.  The demon spoke of his warfare against the monks, and Abbot Sophronius asked him what was the greatest weapon he employed against the monks of this day.  The demon then answered that it was to keep them distracted from spiritual occupations such as prayer and the reading of spiritual books.  The demon said: “Why don’t you read my books?  They are spiritual, for I too am a spirit and I inspire men to write.” (see Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky by Schema-monk Metrophanes, Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, CA 1976)

So we all need to examine ourselves and see how much of a hold the world has upon us.  How much time of ours is dedicated to Christ, and how much is spent upon the fascinating distractions of this world?  We need to begin chipping away at the things which distort our relationship with God and cast them off.  So then, calling to remembrance our all-holy, most pure, most blessed Lady the Theotokos, together with all the saints let us commit ourselves, one another to Christ our God.  Amen.