29 - Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, March 30, 2014

Hebrews 6:13-20

Ephesians 5:9-19 (Saint)

Mark 9:17-31

Matthew 4:25-5:12 (Saint)

We celebrated this week the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Blessed Virgin the conception of God’s Son in her womb that made her to be the Theotokos, the Mother of God. As the Cross is the end of our salvation, so the Annunciation is the beginning. Together, they reveal what is at the heart of the Christian Faith: the inexpressible tenderness of Christ and His Holy Mother. We see the Cross in the Annunciation and the Annunciation in the Cross when we behold the Theotokos standing at the foot of His Cross, weeping, her virginal mother’s heart pierced with grief as she looks on the unjust suffering of the Child that she bore in her womb. And, we see the loving tenderness of the Son for His Mother who bore Him when we see Him commending her to the care of His beloved disciple as He dies on the Cross.

But, the Church’s ascetic disciplines are the flowers that grow from the wood of the Cross (Lenten Triodion, p. 230), which our Mother, the Church, gives us to take up if we would follow her Son and LORD into His Holy Resurrection. Contemplating the tenderness of Christ and His Most-Holy Mother “shown forth” in the mystery of the Annunciation and Christ’s Cross, not only can we see; we can even begin to feel the tender love of Christ and His Holy Mother that fills the ascetic disciplines of the Church as their living substance; and we are given to understand that when we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church as our Cross, we are leaving the love of the world behind in order to become partakers of this ineffably tender love of Christ and His Holy Mother.

Liturgical texts make clear that the Panagia conceives the LORD in her womb in a manner that neither she nor even the Archangel can comprehend. Yet, the LORD God becomes her Son; she becomes His Mother. She loves Him with the tenderness of a mother; He loves her with the devotion of a son. His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin humanizes God even as He deifies man. Even more than that: it reveals man’s familial kinship with God. As the Image of God (Col 1:15) in whom man was made, the Son of God can be conceived in the womb of a woman, the ever-Virgin Mary, and Himself become man. As man, God can grow and develop in the Virgin's womb and be born of her so that He is her Son, the Son of Man, even as He remains what He always is: the Son of God.  

I was moved at the Feast by the dialogue, so tender and reverent, between the Archangel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin. As frightened and reverent as the Panagia was of the Archangel, he was more frightened and reverent of her. (Lk 1:26-56) She was the highly favored one of God, the house built by Wisdom, (Prov 9:1) destined from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4-5) to be His Holy Mother. She was the one prefigured by the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple, the Altar, the Golden Censer, the Lampstand, the Gate of the temple, the Holy of Holies. She was the branch that grows out of the roots of Jesse (Isa 11:1), from whom the Christ would blossom forth as a rose in the cave (Festal Menaion, p. 218). She was the New Eve by whom the Son of God would become the New Adam, who, in the flesh that she gave to Him, would crush the head of the serpent, even as the serpent would bite Him on the heel (Gn 3:15) in the mystery of the Cross. She is the consummate perfection and embodiment of the OT; for, she brought forth from her womb, as from the heart of the OT (Prov 4:23), the New Testament of the most pure body and precious blood of Christ. (I Cor 11:24-25)

Catching sight of the tender love of Christ and His Holy Mother revealed in the Annunciation and the Cross, we begin to see the tender love of God in which He created the world. The Spirit of God “brooded” over the waters, it says in the Hebrew – like a hen brooding over her unhatched eggs, i.e., with the anxious tenderness of a mother. The Father fashions Adam with His two hands (Psa 119:73) like a mother caressing her newborn, and, Adam is brought forth from the earth as from the maternal womb as the “son of God”. (Lk 3:38). So, when Adam and Eve disobey God, do we not now see God’s “wrath” as the expression of His grief over the foolish, soul-destroying action of a willful son and daughter, the first moment when, like a hen gathering her brood under her wings, He would have so often gathered them up, but they would not? (Mat 23:37)

Now, do we not begin really to see the tender love for mankind that drove God “to cease not in doing all things,” even to the point of voluntarily ascending the Cross “until He had brought us, His children, up to Heaven” so that we could become partakers of His divine nature; i.e., partakers of the tender love of Christ and His Holy Mother?

Perhaps, we can begin to see how the refusal to honor and to love the Blessed Virgin Mary as Theotokos perverts the Christian Faith into a rigid moralism, or a sterile propositional credalism, or a vapid sentimentality. As far as I can see, it is only in the veneration of the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God, that one is able to see, or even begin to feel the tender love that is the living substance of the Christian Faith! Where the Blessed Virgin is not venerated in the Orthodox manner as TheotokosMother of God, there the Christian faith is betrayed, because the motherly love of the Theotokos for her Son and God, and the filial love of Christ for His Mother that are at the heart of the Christian Faith, are denied. The Church anathematizes those who refuse to honor Mary as Theotokos; and we can see why: not to honor and venerate His Holy Mother leads one away from Christ because it denies the love He has for His Holy Mother. It impoverishes the mind, which arrogantly sets up images of God that are but the projections of its own disordered psychology, giving us such images (idols) of God as a capricious tyrant who never forgives, or its psychologically compensating opposite, the friend and brother who never judges – images which have produced the many so-called Christian faiths that are cold and sterile or banal and insipid.

Like the Cross, the Theotokos is called the “Heavenly Ladder.” Today, we commemorate St John Climacus and his work, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”, which sets before us the steps of a saving ascetic discipline that ascend the "ladder" of the Cross. From this, we see that the ascetic disciplines of the Church, rooted as they are in the Cross of Christ, are thereby rooted in the tender love of Christ and His Holy Mother. They are therefore concrete expressions of our love for Christ and His Holy Mother. When we take up these disciplines in the Orthodox manner we are working to “make incarnate” the love for Christ and His Holy Mother that is awakened in our heart when we contemplate the tender love of Christ and His Holy Mother that is revealed in the Annunciation and Christ’s Cross. The Fast, therefore, as the expression of our love for Christ and His Holy Mother, is not optional. Yes, we are saved by grace: that means that Christ has raised us from the dead in His Holy Resurrection, which we could not do. He opened the doors to Paradise, which we could not do. But, we are also saved by faith: faith is expressed in obedience, so says St Maximus the Confessor - and obedience is the expression of love. If we wish to enter the doors of Paradise that Christ has opened for us, we must get up and walk. We don't just sit there and look at the open doors. We must get up and walk in the light as He is in the light. That means denying ourselves and voluntarily - i.e., out of love - taking up our cross to follow Christ in order to unite ourselves to Him in the likeness of His death. We do that by taking up the Fast of the Church, according to our strength and according to our circumstances.

The vision of the tender love of Christ and His Holy Mother opens my eyes to see what the Christian Faith is all about: entering into and being restored in my soul to health and wholeness by the tender love of Christ and His Holy Mother. But, when I “imagine” myself entering into that love, I feel immediately the smallness of my heart; and I know why. Because of my conceit and vainglory, my heart is too small to hold such a sacred, tender love. My heart must be enlarged. How? Only Christ can enlarge my heart! But, He can enlarge it only as I deny myself and voluntarily, out of love for Christ and His Holy Mother, take up my cross in order to unite myself to Him on His Cross so that He can put to death the pride of my flesh. This is the purpose of our Lenten Fast. In the three weeks that now remain to Pascha, if you have not been fasting, take up the Fast in your love for Christ and His Holy Mother; and if you have been fasting, persevere in it; and let us go together, all of us, to meet Christ in the Paschal Joy of His Holy Mother! Amen.