Sunday, October 14 (O.S., October 1), 2018: 20th Sunday after Pentecost: THE PROTECTION OF OUR MOST HOLY LADY THE THEOTOKOS AND EVER-VIRGIN MARY; Apostle Ananias of the Seventy (1st c.). St. Romanus the Melodist of Constantinople (556). Martyr Domninus of Thessalonica (4th c.). Martyr Michael, abbot in Armenia, and 36 Fathers with him (790).
Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison WI
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Today the Orthodox Church commemorates the Prokov, the Protection of the Theotokos. The facts of the event are these. Under attack from pagan invaders, the residents of Constantinople prayed to God to be delivered from their enemies. In response, the Mother of God appears and spreads her cloak over the faithful praying in the church as a sign of her protection.
For many Christians, including some Orthodox Christians, events like this in the life of the Church are hard to understand. To some, they even seem nonsensical. Why, some wonder, is it the Mother of God and not her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who acts?
While there are no doubt different motivations for asking this, a central one is our tendency to compartmentalize our lives.
Most of us think of our Christian life as private; as somehow separate from the rest of our lives. We’ve lost the sense that being Christian while personal is anything but private. Our life as Orthodox Christians is–or at least is meant to be–a life of public witness.
We are able to wall off our spiritual life in this way because we think that the spiritual and material exist in separate spheres. How often do I imagine that my actions don’t reflect–much less affect–my heart or character? “He’s not bad, he just does bad things.”
This separation of life into unrelated spheres reflects a deep misunderstanding of the Incarnation and so of what it means for us to be “fully alive” in St Irenaeus’ happy phrase.
In Jesus Christ, we not only overcome the power of sin and death (see Romans 8:2; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57) but also the conflict between the different dimensions of life. This means that in Christ, the public and private, the material and the spiritual, are brought into harmony, each supporting and deepening our openness to grace. This is possible because in Christ, the chasm sin creates between the created and Uncreated is bridged.
Just as God uses human words in the Scriptures to reveal Himself, He also can–and does–use human actions and the whole material world to do the same. Think of the sacraments. God uses human words, deeds, and the material world to pour out His grace on us.
In the sacraments, our experience of grace is not mediated; it isn’t hidden in creation. Rather, as St Paul suggests in the first epistle, even as it was to him on the road to Damascus, in the sacraments grace is given to us directly. The communion of the Uncreated and created in Christ doesn’t diminish or compromise the integrity of either.
And just as in Christ, the sacraments are a real encounter of divine life and a real human encounter at one and the same time.
Though related, this is different from humanity’s experience of grace in the Old Testament. As we hear in Hebrews (10:1), before the coming of Christ, the things of God were shadows of what was to come. This is why, as we hear in the second epistle, things done under the Old Law must be redone. Shadows are fleeting, they pass away.
This reflected no deficiency on God’s part, no lack of grace given to Israel.
What it does make clear is that humanity’s communion with God was not yet perfect. This would only happen with the coming of Christ. It is only in and through Jesus Christ we become able to give ourselves over fully to God Who has first given Himself over fully to us.
To ask the Mother of God to intercede for us–to say nothing of our celebration of her protection of Constantinople, takes nothing away from God. Instead, it shows that we who are in Christ are not only in communion with Him but act along with Him Who acts along with us.
This is why, looking to the first Gospel, we can be told not simply to love those who love us but to love our enemies and do good to them. In Christ, human love while still human is no longer simply human.
Christian love now shares in God’s love. Just as the chasm between the Uncreated and created is bridged and the different dimension of our life are brought into harmony, so too the divisions and hostility that afflict the human community can now be transcended.
Simply put, we can now love sacrificially even those who would do us harm. We can freely and generously (though not without grace and personal struggle) do good to those who do us evil. We are called and made able to be a source of protection, healing, and eternal life even those who would attack us, wound us, humiliate us, and kill us.
As the Mother of God is for the fearful citizens of Constantinople, we, you, me, can be for all those we meet.
All of this though, to look at the second Gospel, is only possible if–like the Virgin Mary–I hear the word of God “and keep it.”
There is nothing mysterious about this. Like Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, I must draw close to Jesus as His disciple. It isn’t a matter of being active or not but of prayerfully discerning the will of God for my life and then acting on it in an equally prayerful obedience.
Or, if you’d rather, to be for you as Mary is for us all, I must discern my vocation and be faithful to it.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Like the Mother of God, we each of us has a vocation, a work that God has given us personally to do.
And like the Mother of God, for each of us, part of that work is to help others discern and pursue their own vocations.
All the grace we have been given as Orthodox Christians have no other purpose than this.