01 - Nativity of Theotokos, Sept 8, 2013

In the sacred beauty of the Church’s liturgical imagery, the things of this world begin to participate in the richness of God, and to disclose something of the glory of God. Through the liturgical imagery of the Church, the sacred doors of heaven open, so that the eyes of faith can look and begin to see a most sacred beauty that is not of this world; for, it is the spiritual beauty of God. Let us therefore this morning grow still in due reverence for Our Most Blessed Savior who is in our midst, so that we may contemplate the Church’s liturgical imagery that surrounds us at this time of the year.

We have passed over into a New Year of the Church, a new anno domini, year of the Lord, a new liturgical cycle that flows ceaselessly as a spring of living water from the heart of the Church (Prov 4:23): the Lord’s Holy Pascha, bearing the ark of the Church through the seas of time to the gates of eternity: the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha, the heart of the Church’s life. We must note how we came to this point in the liturgical path of the Church, and where the path goes from here.

We have come this morning, the eighth day of the New Year, to the birth of the Theotokos. We have come by way of her Dormition, her falling asleep, the last major feast of the Church’s “old” liturgical year. Today also is the Sunday before the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, this Saturday, Sept 14. That feast will be the 40th day from the Feast of the Lord’s Transfiguration, which we commemorated shortly before the Dormition of the Theotokos at the end of the “old” liturgical year on August 6. Note, then, how the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos and her Nativity form the centerpiece of this forty day period when we pass over from the Transfiguration of Christ, which marks the end of the old year to the Elevation of the Cross, which marks the beginning of the New Year.

And, in this pascha from the old to the New Year, we pass over from the Theotokos’ falling asleep to her nativity, so that her birth is disclosed as an image of resurrection, and the passing of the years in the earthly life of the Church are held together by the death and birth, or resurrection of the Theotokos, revealing the beautiful unseen mystery that blesses those who receive Christ in Holy Baptism: it is the mystery of the Theotokos as the Mother of the Church, the Mother of Christ, the Mother of God, who holds us as her children – for so we have become through our regeneration from above in our union with Christ in Holy Baptism – in her motherly, loving embrace as we pass through the years of our life. Just as she lovingly held her Son and God in her womb and, no doubt, in her arms when He was taken down from the Cross, so she holds those who love her as their Mother in the mystery of Christ our God, and confess her to be truly the Most Blessed and Ever-Virgin Theotokos. 

So, you see how we enter the New Year of the Church by way of a pascha, a passing over from the death of the Theotokos to her Nativity within this period that begins with the Transfiguration of Christ on Mt Tabor and ends with the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross forty days later.

Through mindful participation in this liturgical rhythm of the Church, do we not gain a living sense of the spiritual mystery of the Faith of the Church that transfigures our life, if we would but honor it and live by it? It is the mystery of our passing over with the Theotokos from death to life, from the old to the new, in the mystery of the Cross of Christ that transfigures the world, that transfigures all those who receive in faith and in love this Son of God born of the All Holy and Most Blessed Virgin. Our life is transfigured into a participation in the divine nature, a witness, a martyrdom, to the glorious richness of God; and, our death is transfigured into the death of death, and the tomb into a bridal chamber where we who were separated from God, having fallen into death and corruption because of our sins and trespasses, are united to God, cleansed and made new, raised to eternal life in the glory, the love, the joy and the light of God.

In the theological vision that comes to light in the rhythm of this liturgical imagery there is revealed the spiritual joy that clothes the ascetic disciplines of the Church. They are all so many different aspects of obedience to the commandment of Christ to take up our Cross – to elevate the Cross in our daily life – and to deny ourselves and to follow Him, all the way to the tomb of His Holy Pascha, which opens onto the tomb of our own heart.

So, when we take up our cross and follow Christ as He commands, He leads us into the tomb of our heart. In the light of His Holy Spirit, we penetrate beneath the physical surface of our body; and, we discover that beneath the glittering, distracting life of the world that grips us body and soul as in a death grip, we are a spiritual corpse. It’s as though our body and our life in the world are but the outer walls of a tomb, which is our heart, where our soul is buried, a stinking, misshapen, spiritual corpse.

Beloved faithful: this is the vision of ourselves which the sacred beauty of the Church’s liturgical life reveals to us. It does no good to gloss over it, for this is what our soul sees when our eyes are opened. We see that we are naked. We are bereft of the beauty and glory of God’s Holy Spirit that clothed us in the beginning when Adam was first created, that clothed Christ on Mt Tabor. We are clothed not in the glory of God but in the skins of animals, i.e., in the rotting clothes of death because of our self-willed disobedience of God’s commandments. We see that we are unclean, that our soul is leprous and sinful; we have no wedding garment, we are not fragrant and radiant and beautiful. We are stinking and dark and ugly.

In the beauty of God revealed in the Church’s liturgical imagery, we see ourselves no more in the light of our narcissistic vanity, but in the light of God’s glory. It is the vision of what we have become because of our self-willed disobedience that either turns us away from God in the self-pity of anger or despair, or it throws us down to our knees in sorrow and contrition, crying out with the Psalmist: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; put a new and right Spirit within me. Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

Here is a description of that godly sorrow which the Lord says is “blessed”, for it engenders in the soul a weariness of its waywardness, disgust with its worldliness, and a longing for true repentance. And, this godly sorrow, I believe, is the experience of the Cross by which we pass over from the old to the new, from death to life, and into the joy of the Birth of the Theotokos to behold in her birth the dawning of that Light which is from heaven, the dawn that signals the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the mystery of God that was hidden from before the ages, the mystery of God the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, to heal us of all our infirmities, both of body and soul, to raise us up in His Holy Resurrection, to create in us a clean heart and to put in us a new and right spirit, so that we may, if we wish, become communicants of life eternal, partakers of God Himself and of all the riches of God, sharing with Christ in the glory of the Holy Spirit that Christ had with the Father from the beginning.

In the joy of the Theotokos’ birth, the faithful feel the coming of the Light, the coming of Christmas, the coming of Joy, the coming of Pascha! The coming of the gift of God’s own heavenly Life, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the coming of Pentecost! In this joy, beloved faithful, the Church, the body of the crucified and risen Lord, calls out to us: Take up your cross! Elevate the Cross of godly sorrow and divine repentance: turn away from the world and its empty pleasures, deny yourselves, and follow Me to the tomb of your heart, that I may enter your heart, and breathe into your soul the breath of God, the breath of the Holy Spirit, and raise you to life, the life of heaven, that your joy might be made full in the blessed communion of the Most Holy Theotokos and of all the saints in the love, the joy, the life of Christ our God! Amen!