18 Sunday After Christmas - December 30, 2007

Galatians 1:11-19

Matthew 2:13-23

Having come to the Church as to Bethlehem and gathered round the altar as round the manger to look upon the great mystery of the Virgin giving birth to the pre-eternal God in the cave, and having beheld with the eyes of their soul the wonder of Eden opening up once again at the birth of the Christ Child, and the flaming sword giving way before all who approach that they may draw near to the Tree of Life and partake of the delight of Paradise,[1] the faithful of the Church, immediately following the feast of Christ’s Nativity, turn to the Virgin who gave birth to the pre-eternal God to express their love and adoration for her. On the day after Christmas, the Church celebrates the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos as the mystical vine who put forth the bunch of grapes that was never husbanded and with her arms as branches carried the God who was born of her as her Son.[2] Only those who are spiritually deaf, dumb and blind, who do not see or revere the inexplicable wonder of the Lord who dwells in the heights becoming a babe, of him who bears the whole world in the hollow of his hand being wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger,[3] would complain about the love and veneration felt by the Orthodox Church for the blessed Panagia, the most pure Virgin. Only those who have truly repented and laid aside the wisdom of their own opinions in order to be taught by that Church, herself the very body of the Christ who was born of the Virgin, may hope to have the eyes of their soul opened by the Lord so that they can catch even a glimpse of this great and wonderful mystery that transforms the cave into heaven and the Virgin into the throne of the cherubim, the manger a mansion in which Christ the God whom nothing can contain is laid,[4] that causes even the angels to tremble with amazement and fear; only these who draw near in the fear of God, with faith and love, may hope to see this strange and most wonderful mystery that opens the lips of the faithful to cry out, “How shall we not sing of thy mystical childbearing, O Virgin Theotokos;” “Magnify, O my soul, the pure Virgin who has given birth to Christ the King;”[5] “Magnify, O my soul, her who is greater in honor and more glorious than the hosts on high.”[6]

God is love. It is in his compassion for us who had fallen and who sit in the darkness of ignorance and despair that He who rules the heights of heaven emptied himself to become what we are, and was born of a Virgin that he might draw us to himself.[7] It is out of his compassion and his great mercy for the world that he has come into our midst in order to guide us towards the light of the knowledge of his Father, that he might share wholly in our poverty and make our clay godlike through his union and participation in it, and that by his death on the Cross, he might make us free who were servants of the devil and of sin.[8] It is out of his compassion that he has come to us to make us clean and to make the path easy for us whereby we may ascend to the Tree of Life in Heaven and so attain to glory.[9] But he could not have done this for us if the blessed Panagia had not loved him and received him and consented to be his Mother.

It was out of her love for God that the Virgin devoted her life to God at the age of three and went to live in the sanctuary of the temple. It was out of her love for God that she received the news of the archangel Gabriel with fear and trembling, and answered with amazement and joy: “Let it be done to me according to Thy word.” It was in her love for God that the undefiled Virgin beheld in her womb a conception past telling and a birth beyond utterance.[10] It was in her love for God that she carried in her womb the pre-eternal God who had taken flesh from her and was born of her as a child, and held him in her arms and filled with joy, kissed him without ceasing, and spoke to him in wonder: “O Most High God, O King unseen, how is it that I look upon thee? I cannot understand the mystery of thy poverty without measure. The smallest of caves, a strange dwelling for thee, finds room for thee within itself. Thou hast been born without destroying my virginity; thou hast kept my womb as it was before childbirth. Shall I give my breast to thee who givest nourishment to all the world, or shall I sing thy praise as my Son and my God? What manner of name shall I find to call thee, O Lord whom none can name?”[11]

On this Sunday after Christmas, we honor the infants whom Herod murdered in his fury. The unspeakable tragedy of their murder only causes the cup of Christ’s infinite compassion to overflow even more and shows it to be infinitely greater than the murderous fury of Herod. The murdered infants are like the slaughtered children mourned by the Old Testament Rachel, a prophetic type of the most holy Virgin. Rachel would not be comforted so deep was her grief. But Christ, through his conception and birth of the blessed Virgin, and through his own death on the Cross unites the murdered infants in their death to himself; and the Theotokos gathers their souls up into her arms as she gathers her Son and our God, the Christ Child, in her arms. As she weeps and kisses her own Son, Christ our God, without ceasing, so also she weeps over the murdered infants and anoints them with the tears and kisses of her motherly love. But unlike Rachel who would not be comforted, the Theotokos offers the souls of the murdered infants to her infant Son, who is Christ, the pre-eternal God. From his heavenly throne in the Virgin’s womb, he pours forth upon the infants the living waters of his Holy Spirit and anoints them with streams of immortality. He waters their humanity – and ours – with incorruption and because he is compassionate, he makes them rich with the love, the joy, the very life of God’s Spirit. Christ’s Holy Church, his blessed Virgin Mother, teaches us that the murdered infants were prefigured by the three holy youths in the fire (whose story we read at the Vesperal Liturgy of St Basil on Great and Holy Saturday – one of many liturgical indications showing the inner unity of Christ’s Nativity and Pascha). The three holy youths were “caught and held fast by love for the King of all.”[12] So we are given to understand that the murdered infants were caught and held fast by their love for the King of all, Christ our God. The three holy youths despised the impious threats of the tyrant.[13] So we are given to understand that the murdered infants despised the murderous hatred of Herod.[14] And this morning, we see how the Church remembers the murdered infants. They are not “murdered infants,” but martyrs, “Holy Innocents,” the “Holy Righteous Ones.” We see how in his infinite compassion, the Lord has raised up these murdered infants in the memory of his holy Church, as in the arms of his blessed Mother, as his beloved athletes who suffered martyrdom for him and who by their martyrdom have shown themselves to be the “most splendid eyes of the Church,”[15] for whose sake Herod is put to shame.”[16]

God the Father is love. God the Son is love. God the Holy Spirit is love. The Blessed Virgin who gave birth to the pre-eternal God is full of love for God and for all of creation. The holy righteous ones suffer martyrdom at the hands of wicked Herod out of their love for Christ. The saints are gathered in love and adoration round the Theotokos, who holds in her bosom her beloved God who is the beloved Son of the Father. My point in all of this is that the Church of Christ is a communion of love gathered round Virgin and Child. The Church is a communion of saints, of holy righteous ones who are “caught and held fast by their love for Christ, the King of all.” In Christ’s Holy Church, the faithful love God; they love his holy Mother; they love all the saints, and they love one another in the love of God. Those who complain about the love and honor given by the faithful to the blessed Virgin, and for that matter, of the love and honor given by the faithful to the “holy righteous ones,” the saints, only show that they have not yet understood the mystery of divine love that is the very life of Christ’s holy Church. For the faithful of Christ’s Holy Church, immersed in the baptismal waters of Christ’s infinite compassion, we worship Christ our God in the infinite love of God. Worship for the faithful of Christ’s holy Church is an expression of our love for God in Christ; and in our love for Christ God, we adore and love the blessed Virgin, his Mother, precisely because she is his Mother. Having become one with Christ God through the sacraments of the Church, we gather with all the saints round his Mother in her love for her Son and our God; and in the love of her Son and our God, we strive to love his Mother as Christ himself loves her, as any son would love his Mother – especially when she is so gentle and compassionate as the most holy and ever-blessed Virgin.

Indeed, I believe we can say that she is in a way beyond understanding the Mother of all those who have been born from above as children of God and made alive in their union with Christ through the baptismal waters of Christ’s Holy Church. For, having been incorporated into the very body and blood of Christ through Holy Communion, we have become members of Christ’s body, his holy Church; and his Mother, the Church, has become our Mother. Born from above in the waters of the baptismal font, we have become children of God and children of the blessed Virgin, for we have become one body with Him who was born of the Theotokos as from his own most pure Mother. It is the experience of love’s unspeakable depths in the Church, by which the whole of creation is united with God through the great and sacred mystery of the Virgin giving birth to the pre-eternal God in the cave, that in the mind of the faithful renders any effort to separate Christ from his most pure Mother as a godless act of darkened arrogance and ignorance, akin in spirit to Herod’s murder of the holy innocents. For Christ’s Holy Church is a communion of the saints gathered round the Virgin in the love of Christ. Bathed in the light of Christ’s divine love that has shone on the earth from the pure Virgin, the faithful cannot help but cry out to her in the hymn of the Feast: “We have seen, O pure Mother, the dim figures of the Word and the shades that are past; and now that he has newly appeared from the closed gate, we who are counted worthy to behold the Light of truth, as is meet and right, bless thy womb.”[17] “For a marvelous wonder has this day come to pass: nature is made new and God becomes man.” “How shall we tell of this great mystery? He who is without flesh receives the whole of our substance from you and becomes incarnate; the Word puts on a body; the invisible is seen; he whom no hand can touch is handled; and he who knows no beginning now begins to be.”[18] “Our Savior, the Dayspring from the east, has visited us from on high, and we who were in darkness and shadow have found the truth, for the Lord is born of the Virgin.”[19]

It is truly meet and right to bless thee, O Theotokos, ever blessed and most pure and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim; without defilement you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you. 

[1] FM (Festal Menaion)  253

[2] FM 292

[3] FM 208

[4] FM 282

[5] FM 282

[6] FM 281

[7] FM 272; cf. 199

[8] FM 275

[9] FM 275

[10] FM 199

[11] FM 200 & 199

[12] FM 279

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ode V, Matins for December 29.

[15] Ode III, Matins for December 29.

[16] Ode IV, Matins for December 29

[17] FM 283

[18] FM 291

[19] Fm 284