Sunday, October 01, 2006

October 1: The Protection of the Mother of God

A meditation for Sunday, October 1, 2006

One of the great falsehoods -- indeed, one of the damaging lies -- that Christians sometimes tell about ourselves is that if we believe in God, if we have faith in Jesus, then things ought always to go well for us. We ought not to suffer, to struggle. Life should be "smooth sailing."

That illusion is shattered by the reading from 2 Corinthians 6. Saint Paul, who believed Christ our God with all his heart, soul, and mind… Saint Paul, who gave his life as a missionary apostle to the Gentiles, describes the “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger” that he and his fellow workers have endured. It’s a difficult, somber picture of the faithful Christian life.

And yet, certainly, the picture is not without hope. Saint Paul also describes the very good things that characterize his ministry: “purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” The Christian life, the life lived faithfully following Jesus, can and will be all of that: a wondrous joy, even as it is also a cross to bear. It’s a joyful sorrow: it’s the pain of repentance inseparably bound up with the wonder of forgiveness, it’s a heart open to love that is bound to face rejection.

This joyful sorrow is nowhere more manifest than in the call of Jesus in the Gospel reading from Luke 6: “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

Do this, and your reward will be great… but in the meantime, it will be all those things that Saint Paul described: great joy intricately bound up with great sorrow. It’s hard enough to learn to love those who love us back -- that in itself can be filled with peril and heartbreak! But our Lord Jesus calls us beyond that to love even our enemies, to do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and to be merciful even as God is merciful.

We glimpse this quality in the lives of the saints, who give us an example of great holiness. Oftentimes, the saints who lived these difficult words were dismissed as crazy and foolish by the world. They attempted to love their enemies, to be merciful, and the world mocked them for it. They came to be known as “fools for Christ,” and it’s the calling of the holy fool that brings us to the theme of the feast we mark today: the Protection of the Mother of God.

Tradition tells us that a little over eleven hundred years ago, the city of Constantinople was under threat of attack. A foreign navy was about to launch an offensive and the people were frightened. They didn’t flee; instead, they flocked to the churches of the city to pray throughout the night. At one of the vigils was Saint Andrew, widely known as a “Fool-for-Christ,” who looked up and saw a wondrous thing:

Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos coming through the air, resplendent with heavenly light and surrounded by an assembly of the Saints. Saint John the Baptist and the holy Apostle John the Theologian accompanied her. On bended knees the Most Holy Virgin tearfully prayed for Christians for a long time.

After completing her prayer she took her veil and spread it over the people praying in church, protecting them from enemies both visible and invisible. The Most Holy Lady Theotokos was resplendent with heavenly glory, and the protecting veil in her hands gleamed "more than the rays of the sun."

Saint Andrew gazed trembling at the miraculous vision and he asked his disciple, the blessed Epiphanius standing beside him, "Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?" Epiphanius answered, "I do see, holy Father, and I am in awe."

What Saint Andrew the “Fool-for-Christ” and his disciple Epiphanius saw that night was a revelation of the mystery of the Church Triumphant: the saints of heaven, led by the Virgin Mother of God, at prayer for us.

In the joyful sorrow of our Christian lives, in midst of the tumult that can threaten to overwhelm us, we are reminded that we are not alone. God has situated us in His Church, His Body, in the midst of brothers and sisters who are called to struggle with us and to uphold us in word and deed and prayer. And that mystical Body, the Church, isn’t limited to this little gathering here and now. It extends throughout time and into the heavens: it includes the saints throughout the ages, all the host of heaven, led by the Queen of Heaven, who in her earthly life “heard the word of God and kept it,” who now intercedes for us before the throne of heaven.

The Gospel for us this day is that God provides for us, even along the difficult path that we may walk. Fear not: for we are not alone. We are upheld by the faith of the Church, which teaches us the Truth and helps us to abide in that Truth. We are encompassed by the prayers of the saints, of the Theotokos, so that we may endure.

And that, brethren, is a wondrous and amazing thing, awesome to behold. Amen.